The quest for jus­tice 116 years on

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - MARK DAY

A new chap­ter in the 116-year saga of Breaker Morant and his side­kick Peter Hand­cock will be writ­ten next week when fed­eral par­lia­ment con­sid­ers a mo­tion that de­clares their ex­e­cu­tion in 1902 to be “cruel and un­just”.

The mo­tion, to be pre­sented by Queens­land MP Scott Buch­holz, ac­knowl­edges “se­ri­ous de­fi­cien­cies” in the han­dling of the case and ex­presses “sin­cere re­gret” the men were “de­nied pro­ce­dural fair­ness con­trary to law”.

The case cen­tres on the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Bushveldt Car­bi­neers, a mil­i­tary con­tin­gent es­tab­lished by the Bri­tish army dur­ing the Boer War of 1899 to 1902.

Three Aus­tralian lieu­tenants, Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Hand­cock and Ge­orge Wit­ton, were ac­cused of ex­e­cut­ing Boer pris­on­ers of war while on pa­trol in South Africa’s re­mote north Transvaal prov­ince in 1901. They claimed they were act­ing un­der or­ders to take no pris­on­ers in the bru­tal con­flict that saw 16,000 Aus­tralian vol­un­teers serve.

A court-mar­tial found the three guilty on Fe­bru­ary 21, 1902, and they were sen­tenced to death. Rec­om­men­da­tions of mercy for Morant and Hand­cock were ig­nored and they were de­nied any form of ap­peal be­fore be­ing shot by a fir­ing squad a week later.

Wit­ton’s sen­tence was com­muted to life im­pris­on­ment and he was re­leased in 1904 af­ter a cam­paign led by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment. He claimed in his book Scape­goats of the Em­pire that the Bri­tish com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Lord Kitch­ener, had en­gi­neered the ex­e­cu­tions as an olive branch de­signed to end the war.

De­spite many at­tempts since to prove the men were de­nied jus­tice and de­served post­hu­mous par­dons, Bri­tish author­i­ties have re­fused to budge.

Mon­day’s pri­vate mem­ber’s mo­tion comes as a re­sult of cam­paign­ing by Mel­bourne-based Aus­tralian Navy re­servist lawyer James Un­kles, who be­lieves there were se­ri­ous breaches of the law.

Writ­ing in The Week­end Aus­tralian to­day, Mr Un­kles says the de­bate to­day is not about whether the men were guilty of ex­e­cut­ing pris­on­ers. “It is about whether they were de­nied jus­tice,” he says. “A wrong is never di­min­ished by the pass­ing of time. “It is our duty to put it right.” Mr Buch­holz said his mo­tion was “a wor­thy sub­ject to bring to the at­ten­tion of the Aus­tralian par­lia­ment and the Aus­tralian peo­ple as we ap­proach the 116th an­niver­sary of the ex­e­cu­tions”.

“I am happy to take the is­sue for­ward on be­half of the de­scen­dants in the hope it brings peace of mind and helps put the record straight,” he said. “This mo­tion will add strength and mo­men­tum to the tire­less ef­forts of James Un­kles to have the case re­viewed.”

The mo­tion ac­knowl­edges the “on­go­ing emo­tional suf­fer­ing this case has caused the de­scen­dants of Lieu­tenants Morant, Hand­cock and Wit­ton” and ex­presses “sin­cere re­gret” that the men were de­nied pro­ce­dural fair­ness con­trary to law, which had “cruel and un­just con­se­quences.” It also ex­presses sym­pa­thy to de­scen­dants of the men — at least 12 of whom will be in par­lia­ment’s pub­lic gallery to hear the mo­tion put.

Jen­nifer Wit­ton-Sands, of Boonah in south­east­ern Queens­land, said she hoped it would lead to an end to the saga.

“What hap­pened to my great­great un­cle was a source of shame within the fam­ily for years,” she said. “It brought much heartache, but this mo­tion which records the in­jus­tices means so much to us.”

Lon­don-based lawyer Michelle Wit­ton, vis­it­ing fam­ily in Syd­ney, said the case was an im­por­tant part of his­tory: “We can’t change the past but we can as­pire to make amends for what would these days be seen as a clear case of abuse of hu­man rights.”

Peter Hand­cock’s great-great­grand­son Michael Hand­cock said it was clear the men should not have been ex­e­cuted. “That wrong can’t be righted ... It’s a step for­ward, but we would still like to see par­dons.”

JOHN FEDER

Michelle Wit­ton, a de­scen­dant of Ge­orge Wit­ton

Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant

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