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Liberty: police should investigate military crimes

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Liberty, inquest, narrative verdict, Private Sean Benton, DeepcutThe people who were causing him terrible problems were the same people he would have had to ask for help’.

Civil liberties and human rights campaign group Liberty has called for civilian police to investigate all military crimes after the Coroner in Private Sean Benton’s inquest delivered a highly critical verdict.

The Coroner in the inquest into the 1995 death of Private Sean Benton at Deepcut Barracks recorded a verdict of suicide, and delivered a narrative verdict that severely criticised serious failures in duty of care at Deepcut barracks.

His Honour Judge Peter Rook QC delivered his conclusions at Woking Coroner’s Court following a wide-ranging inquest which began in January and heard evidence about Benton and life at the Surrey camp from 174 witnesses.

The Coroner said:

The Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in charge of Sean’s troop, Sergeant Andrew Gavaghan, physically assaulted and humiliated him on numerous occasions;

Sergeant Gavaghan physically assaulted at least 10 other trainees – including violently assaulting teenage girls, assaulting a young male trainee with a broom handle, punching and kicking others and smashing one trainee’s head on a radiator;

NCOs used physically excessive or overly repetitive punishments at Deepcut that went well beyond legitimate sanctions;

Ratios of senior staff to trainees were “wholly inadequate”, with one NCO in charge of up to 400 recruits at times;

There was no welfare officer or welfare policy at Deepcut;

The investigation into Sean’s death was “woefully lacking”;

Sean died of blood loss caused by self-inflicted gunfire and there was no third-party involvement in his death. He persuaded a fellow trainee to hand him a gun after being told he was to be discharged from the Army;

Senior officers failed to warn recruits that Sean was not to have access to weapons. Had they given that simple instruction, Sean would not have got hold of a weapon and would not have taken his own life; and

There was “ample evidence” available to NCOs that Sean was vulnerable, but they did little to help him.

Liberty – which had been representing Sean Benton’s family – has again raised the problematical issue that serious crimes including rape, sexual assault and grievous bodily harm can still be investigated by the Army’s internal police force, the military police, instead of a civilian force.

This means that many assaults including those suffered by Benton can still be investigated by a soldier’s own Commanding Officer and not referred to any kind of police at all.

The military police, Liberty has repeatedly warned, lack the resources and experience to competently and independently investigate the most serious crimes – as was demonstrated by the collapse of a recent criminal trial involving allegations that training instructors at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate had committed serious assaults on junior recruits and by the very strong critical remarks of the Judge Advocate.

And Sean Benton’s family believe vulnerable young soldiers today could still go through the same experiences Sean did 23 years ago.

Sean Benton was found with five bullet wounds to his chest on 9 June 1995 – shortly after he had been told he was to be discharged from the Army.

He was the first of four young soldiers to die of gunshot wounds at the Surrey barracks between 1995 and 2002.

His death was followed by a brief investigation by the military’s internal police force, which was rushed and grossly inadequate.

His family went on to spend more than 20 years fighting for the thorough inquest they and their son deserved.

Benton’s older sister Tracy Lewis and his twin brother Tony Benton, who were represented by Liberty, applied for a second inquest in July 2015. This was granted in October 2016.

The application was made possible only after Sean’s late mother Linda Benton used the Human Rights Act to finally access vast amounts of evidence held by Surrey Police about his death.

Linda Benton died in May 2015, having never discovered the truth about what happened to Sean.

Tracy Lewis said: “In the last few months of his life, Sean had nowhere to go.

“If there had been a good, independent complaints system, or if he had known he could have reported the assaults he suffered to the police, he might have got the help he needed.

“But at Deepcut, the people who were causing him terrible problems were the same people he would have had to ask for help. So he was stuck.

“The Army will say things are different today. I don’t believe enough has changed,” she continued.

“If Sean – or a vulnerable young man like him – joined the Army today, I worry that he could go through the same thing. I fear that another family today might have to endure what mine has for 23 years.

“Our soldiers are still subject to an inferior, second-class justice system – less fair, less thorough and less independent than the civilian one.”

Emma Norton, Head of Legal Casework at Liberty and solicitor for the Benton family, said: “Private Sean Benton was routinely attacked and humiliated at Deepcut barracks. He had nowhere to turn for help, and his mental health fell apart.

“Myth-busting recruitment campaigns might claim things are different now – but we still see soldiers failed by a closed-ranks military culture that resents outside oversight.

“When soldiers are assaulted or face sexual violence at work, the Army must guarantee civilian police will investigate those crimes. The men and women who fight for our country deserve equal justice.”

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