Twenty Years Ago Today: War Crimes

The same image you always see whenever anyone in the UK wants to to a piece on the Falklands War. Twenty years ago today, an Argentinian newspaper, Clarin, published accusations that British soldiers had committed war crimes during the Falklands war (which, incidentally, began thirty-two years ago today, when Argentine forces invaded). The accusation was one that has been made against soldiers all through history: that when the enemy surrendered, they were not dealt with according to the laws of war. Instead, they were simply murdered.

Normally this would be treated with derision by the UK media and denial by the UK government. But an investigation was already nearing completion into accusations of British war crimes during the battle of Mount Longdon, instigated by a memoir written by Vincent Bramley, a veteran of the the third batallion of the Parachute Regiment. He claimed to have seen Argentine POWs gunned down, and a British soldier cutting ears from the bodies of the dead.

Scotland Yard had already finished their work and handed the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barbara Mills, who was still deciding whether or not to press charges. There was predictable opposition in the press. The Daily Mail described it as 'a betrayal of our fallen heroes', while the editor of the Daily Telegraph pleaded for the 'lunacy' to stop.

Mills decided not to prosecute in July 1994, since the evidence was 'not such as to afford a realistic prospect of conviction of any person for any criminal offence' (although the police who investigated had thought otherwise). Vincent Bramley was relieved; he was of the opinion that these things happen in the heat of battle - so why bother prosecuting? Others took it as a complete exoneration of the soldiers, and that no crimes had taken place at all. The Argentine War Veterans' Federation had another opinion: they called it a cover-up.

This was not the last accusation of war crimes during the Falklands War, although it's a conflict that produced relatively few such incidents. In 2012 another veteran, Tony Banks, wrote of crimes on both sides: Argentinians who shot British soldiers approaching under a flag of truce, followed by his own side killing Argentinians trying to surrender. This time, the Daily Mail serialised the book, seemingly oblivious to their opinion of such accusations twenty years earlier. Or maybe they just agreed with Vincent Bramley that such things happen in war and there's no sense gnashing teeth over it.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'll just point out the obvious: yep, war crimes happen in war. They're virtually impossible to stop. When pissed off people are facing each other with guns, they won't always follow nice little rules when using them. The same overabundance of weapons, contempt and blind hatred means that civilians will also be injured, killed and raped in war crimes that can and have been even more horrific than anything done to soldiers.

We've been trying to regulate war since at least the Middle Ages, a time when looting, murder and rape was often regarded as a soldier's right after victory (and was the whole point of many conflicts). But all the regulations, from the codes of Chivalry to the Geneva Conventions to the International Criminal Court, have done precious little to stop atrocities from happening.

So let's stop fussing about war crimes and do the obvious thing: call war itself a crime, and stop bloody doing it.

But somehow, I don't think that's going to happen any time soon.


Twenty Years Ago Today: Media Circus in Cromwell Street

Gloucester's newest tourist attraction Twenty years ago today, the situation at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, was growing ever more grim. In the two weeks of excavations up to this point, at least nine bodies had been discovered with a possibility of a tenth. Fred West had been charged with eight murders. This was officially one of the most horrifying murder investigations in British history, which means it had also become one of the most sickening media circuses in British history.

Solicitors involved in the case, including the one appointed to take care of the interests of the West's children (who were then in care), had warned the media to restrain themselves, and that legal action might be taken against any newspaper printing stories that would prejudice West's trial. But this did little to hold back the hordes of journalists, whose chequebooks were practically dripping money. Everyone who knew anything had had their story bought by one newspaper or another - unless they were holding out for a higher price. The local newspapers were rapidly being squeezed out by the nationals, who had reportedly offered one of West's surviving daughters £40,000 for her story.

It wasn't just the newspapers. A house that backed onto Cromwell Street had its garden taken over by television news crews, who built platforms for their cameras and lights so they could look down onto the ongoing excavations. The owner of the garden was charging by the day - and charged more if something significant happened. Hotels and shops were doing a brisk business thanks to the hordes that had descended upon the city. The chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce regretted the circumstances that had brought so many to Gloucester, but hoped that now they were there, they would discover more of what the city had to offer, like the Beatrix Potter shop and the lovely cathedral.

Identifiable signs on the house were being removed by the authorities, for fear that they would be stolen by souvenir hunters - a quite reasonable fear, since Cromwell Street had become a mecca for gawpers and murder aficionados of all kinds. Some were just locals who couldn't resist rubbernecking as they drove past, but some came from all over the country, recounting stories of how they'd gone to see Dennis Nilsen's flat, and speculating on what kinds of horrible things must have gone on behind the walls of 25 Cromwell Street.

What's left of 25 Cromwell Street

In years to come, the house would be demolished and the land on which it stood turned into a broad footpath, to prevent as much of the murder tourism as could be prevented. But it'll never stop entirely. After all, I'm writing this piece twenty years later, and I still find the whole mess fascinating, if grotesque - I certainly can't claim I'm any better than the people who were staring with open-eyed fascination at the outside of an unremarkable house, knowing that murder had taken place within. Nor do I expect our descendants will be any better than us; people will still be reading about Fred and Rose West a century from now, much as we still read about Jack the Ripper more than a century on from the killings in Whitechapel.

We might like to decry the chequebook journalism and morbid voyeurism of 1994, but it doesn't change the fact that we still do the same things today (though with greater efficiency now that we have the internet). The only perspective the past gives us in this matter is upon ourselves; in glancing back, we can see how ugly we really are.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Fred West Charged With More Murders

25_cromwell_streetTwenty years ago today, Frederick West was charged with two more murders: that of 18 year old Shirley Robinson, whose body was found during a police excavation at his property, and that of an unidentified woman who had also been discovered. By this point, he'd already been charged with the murder of his daughter, Heather, who had been the initial focus of the dig that began on February the 24th. There were more victims yet to be found, and terrible tales of horror to be uncovered regarding both Fred West and his wife, Rosemary, who had together raped and murdered at least a dozen women at the house in Cromwell Street. But for just one moment, let's step back and remind ourselves that for every criminal caught by the police, there's an officer who actually had to do the work of catching them.

The officer in this case was Detective Constable Hazel Savage. It was she to whom West had made his rambling confessions the day after the excavations began. She was far from the only officer working on the investigation and she wasn't the one in charge, but it was her doggedness that kept it alive. DC Savage had been involved in a child abuse inquiry into the Wests in 1992 which saw their remaining children taken briefly into care, and became suspicious when two of the expected offspring of Fred and Rosemary were nowhere to be found. The initial case collapsed, but Savage kept on collating information until she heard the family gossip that Heather was 'buried under the patio'. After all attempts to find Heather elsewhere were exhausted, Savage decided to ask for a search warrant to see if this story was really true. It wasn't; but only because Heather was buried in three pieces in different parts of the garden.

Removing evidence. There was a LOT of evidence.

She wasn't exactly a newcomer to the job. She was a veteran with thirty years on the force, and she received an MBE for her role in bringing the Wests to justice. Unfortunately, it seems that she succumbed to temptation and contacted a literary agent with a mind to writing a book about her story; she decided not to go forward with the project, but the mere fact that she'd explored the idea led to her being suspended and moved on to other duties. In these days when serving officers can blog and publish with seeming impunity, needing no more than the fig leaf of anonymity to protect them, this does seem a bit harsh; but she should have left it until the investigation was complete and the criminals convicted. If she'd consulted her superiors first and waited until she'd retired - which she'd been putting off so she could see this investigation to its end - she'd probably have been fine.

(she wasn't the only one to be tempted by the cash on offer; the trial of Rose West would eventually be seriously hampered because so many witnesses had told all to various newspapers)

And now, to chill you to the bone, here's a collage of recordings of Fred West in various police interviews:

The case continues. We'll pick it up again later in the year, as the full horrors become clear.

(late correction in the early hours of March 1st: it turns out that West wasn't actually charged with these particular murders until March 2nd, according to the official timeline from Gloucestershire Police. It's too late to write another post now, so I'll have to let this stand. But that's what I get for trusting the BBC's 'on this day' feature. Oh, well, lesson learned: always do more research!)

Twenty Years Ago Today: Where is your daughter, Mr. and Mrs. West?

Fred and Rose West Twenty years ago today, a terrible suspicion was about to be confirmed in the city of Gloucester as the police finally received permission to begin excavations at 25 Cromwell Street, in search of a missing woman called Heather West. Her father, Fred West, was called on his mobile by his wife, Rosemary, and told that the police were about to begin digging in search of Heather, who had gone missing in 1987 at the age of 16.

Fred West's response to his wife was that he hoped they wouldn't make a mess of his patio.

The Wests had already told the police they weren't worried about their daughter. She was lazy, she was a pain in the backside, and she was a lesbian. So what if she vanished? Girls leave home and drift off into prostitution all the time, don't they?

But it wasn't just this that had led the police to the Wests' door. In May, 1992, one of his other daughters had told friends at school that her father had raped her. By August, the story had reached the parents of the friends, and the police were notified. West was charged with rape, with Rosemary as an accomplice. Their children were placed in foster care. The case collapsed when the main witnesses declined to testify in June the following year, and the children were returned.

Nor was this the first time the Wests had been in trouble. Fred had first been arrested for a sexual offence at the age of nineteen. In 1965, he'd been driving an ice cream van when he ran over and killed a four year year old boy. In 1972, Caroline Roberts, who worked for the couple as a nanny, reported she had been raped by both Fred and Rosemary, but could not go through with the ordeal of the trial.

Everything else had happened in secret.

The next day, the police would find human remains under the patio. Fred West didn't wait for them to dig up his daughter: he simply got into a police car and told a detective constable: "I killed her." He was taken to a police station, where he began a rambling series of confessions that swiftly turned into denials a few minutes later, then became confessions again as the news of the discovery of human remains came back to the station.

But the discoveries were more troubling than anyone could have supposed. Because the bones the police found did not belong to Heather West.

We'll be coming back to this story in March.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Murders in Northern Ireland

200px-Emblem_of_the_Ulster_Defence_Association.svg An average news day in 1994 features all the stories you'd expect in a world hungry for the least bit of pointless trivia. And somewhere on page seven, buried under all the stories about celebrity anorexics and complaints about the reorganisation of London's phone books, you'll likely find a little bit of news datelined from Belfast, telling how this Catholic or that Protestant was murdered yesterday at the hands of paramilitaries.

The terrorist campaign on the British mainland was a series of occasional atrocities, sometimes preceded by coded warnings that permitted the authorities to evacuate the area in time. Months or years could pass between attacks. Not so in Northern Ireland itself; there, the war kept boiling on from day to day and week to week as the self-appointed defenders of each side shot and bombed civilians or police or soldiers simply to enforce a regime of terror, all the while keeping organised crime under their control so they could keep the funds rolling in.

Today's victims are from the Catholic community, shot dead in separate attacks by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who were later understood to be no more than a trading name of the Ulster Defence Association, the largest Loyalist paramilitary group. Their names were John Doherty, an engineer who was shot as he slept in South Belfast, and Cormac McDermott of Ballymena, Co Antrim, who was killed by gunmen who walked into his house. His wife was left with neck wounds in the attack, though she survived.

Better things are coming in the next few years for Ulster. Most of the paramilitary groups will lay down their arms, albeit grudgingly. There will be some backsliding, and the real extremists will break away into their own groups to continue killing and bombing, but their numbers will be far fewer.

The situation has definitely improved. But that doesn't bring back John Doherty or Cormac McDermott, or any of the thousands of others who died during the Troubles.