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Government pardons Great War soldiers

The government announced today that it would proceed with a bill granting posthumous pardons to five New Zealand soldiers executed during World War One for desertion or mutiny following the emergence of evidence that the men suffered from shell shock or illness.

Prime Minister Helen Clark said the government would adopt the member's bill drafted by Labour's Invercargill MP, Mark Peck, which pardons the five soldiers executed during WW1: Jack Braithwaite, Victor Spencer and John Sweeney of the Otago Regiment, and Frank Hughes and John King of the Canterbury Regiment.

"Today's announcement will be a relief for the families of the executed soldiers, some of who have been campaigning for decades to clear the names of the soldiers," Helen Clark said.

"Retired High Court judge Sir Edward Somers, who the previous government commissioned to investigate the execution cases, concluded that shell shock, or other stress-related disorders, were a likely cause of the alleged offences.

"Despite that finding, the Somers report found that in light of the evidence of the time, it was unable to conclude that there was sufficient evidence of a miscarriage of justice, a conclusion which the previous government accepted.

"This government, however, is of the view that given what we now know about shell shock, and given what we know of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these soldiers, a very strong case exists to grant posthumous pardons.

"We will adopt Mark Peck's bill as a government measure and thereby grant the pardons to the five executed soldiers."

Mark Peck said that today's decision was a humane act.

"The conditions in which soldiers in World War 1 fought were extreme. History has documented the mistakes, and at times outright incompetence, of the military leadership. Low morale and disease were rife. The military-legal process under which the five soldiers were convicted and executed was, at best, summary justice with scant options for appeal.

"Most importantly, we now know that shell shock is a debilitating injury for which latter day soldiers were pensioned off home, rather than patched and sent back to the front line.

"While we do not seek to condemn those who administered field justice at the time, we are right to correct the injustice that we now know to have occurred in what was, by any account, an extremely horrific war.

"Members of the families of the five executed men have waged a long campaign to have them pardoned. Together with them, I am grateful that we are now embarking on the last chapter in this sad story," Mr Peck said.


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