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tv   HAR Dtalk  BBC News  January 22, 2020 12:30am-1:01am GMT

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the trial of president trump is under way in the senate. senators are meant to act as jurors over claims the president misused his power is by deliberately withholding military aid to ukraine to force it to announce a corruption investigation into mr trump's political rival. travellers worldwide are on alert as health chiefs warn a deadly new form of coronaviruses are spreading beyond china. the case has been confirmed in seattle in the united states. this story is getting a lot of attention on the website. prince harry is threatening to take legal action over photos taken of meghan. reportedly taken by photographers in bushes using long lens cameras. that's all. stay with bbc world news. now on bbc news, hardtalk.
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welcome to hardtalk, i'm stephen sackur. uk prime minister borisjohnson has promised to take steps to protect military personnel from what he describes as "vexatious legal claims". that's a controversial stance as armed conflicts from northern ireland to iraq have thrown up serious allegations of criminal wrongdoing by soldiers. my guest today, alexander blackman was convicted of murder while serving in afghanistan in 2011. after a long legal struggle, his conviction was reduced to manslaughter. what does his case tell us about the reality and accountability on the battlefield?
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alexander blackman, welcome to hardtalk. thank you. it's pretty much now three years since you were released from prison, have you moved on or do you still ponder what happened to you every day of your life? i think i've moved on quite well. i don't like to dwell too much on the past. it's quite a significant event in my life but... most people would assume life—changing. yes, arguably. trying to move on with the rest of my life and in many respects, put those experiences behind me. we're talking about an incident — and we will go into it in some detail — that occurred in 2011. i'm very mindful thatjust
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a couple of months ago, one of your colleagues in the military operation you were involved in september 2011, sam deen, who at the time of all the investigations was known as ‘marine e'. he spoke of hitting rock bottom a year or so ago and finding it very difficult to deal with his emotions. you've not had that at all have you? i have struggled when i was initially convicted. it was a very tough, in terms of mental health and well—being, while i was in prison. in certain stages through the campaign, you know, there was highs and lows. obviously, we got a result, not everything we were hoping for but it meant my release quite quickly after the appeal was successful. i think that has helped me more than anything else.
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you are of course, it should be said, a veteran, a military man of a great deal of experience so let us go back in time, tell the story chronologically. when you got to afghanistan, serving in the royal marines in 2011, you were familiar with frontlines and battlefields and had served in northern ireland and in iraq. i had taken part in the invasion of iraq in 2003 and had served in afghanistan before. while every tour is different, it's hard to explain the nuances and how they change... you go through retraining every time you go because things change and although you may have gone there a year before, the situation on the ground, the way the enemy is fighting, the tactics they use change so much that you need to be refreshed. if we are talking about afghanistan and helmand province where you and your company were operating in september 2011, was it a more intense,
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a more difficult war—fighting environment than anything you'd known before? different would be the word i would use. in iraq and my first tour in afghanistan was more of a stand—up fight. we'd go out on patrol, the company would send out guys on patrol and you would do an old —fashioned advance to contact almost. attack the enemy where they were and they would attack us where we were. it was more, what your average person might assume a war is like. 2011 was more... you're patrolling almost like police. you're there to reassure the locals and you would get ambushed almost on a frequent basis with small arms fire, the ied threat was a lot more prevalent. that is the explosive devices hidden, put on roadsides that were killing and maiming a number of your colleagues. back in the early herrick tours, deployments to afghanistan, they weren't used a great deal.
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they were used but as the taliban evolved their tactics because they realised they couldn't win a stand—up fight against the british and coalition forces out there, they naturally evolved to using more ieds. i'm asking you about this in some detail because, as we said, here you sit some three years after you came out of prison, we know a lot more now about the mental state that you and your men were in because although they didn't appear in your original trial, there were papers from the mod describing how you and your men had not been in sufficient contact with commanding officers. there were warning signs that could have indicated that there were signs of quote, "moral regression", "psychological strain", "deep fatigue", amongst you and your men.
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were you, let's be honest, really in a bad state by september 2011? it's always difficult because you don't recognise it in yourself. i was in a position of command and had some subordinates below me in my location. i think it would have been very brave, one of those, if they'd noticed or seen something in me out of the ordinary to say to a superior that... maybe they didn't care? it's borne out that a lot of them were suffering as well. generally, if you are suffering from mental illness, you may be the last person to know. as i was, you know, i didn't realise how bad i was until, obviously events led to their conclusion. 0ne former officer involved, colonel 0liver lee suggested that your company of marines were out of control. i don't know, again that's his opinion, which he is entitled to. it's difficult because we were spread over lots of different locations. thing is, if you weren't out of control, it's very hard to explain what you did because let
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us get to september 2011. you were in the field, you'd had a long day when an apache helicopter attacked a group of insurgents, i believe. 0ne taliban fighter was left grievously wounded. you and your small group of men went to that man and a short time later, he was alive and you shot him dead. if you weren't out of control, why did you do that? i think it's something i've struggled to understand myself. it's been a long time and only since the appeal and the process going forward to that that i was diagnosed with a mental illness. it has made it slightly easier for me to understand that i wasn't myself, i wasn't acting as i should do because i was unwell. if, arguably, i hadn't been unwell, that wouldn't have happened. this is difficult stuff because the camera helmet video that you were unaware of at the time shows you pulling out your pistol,
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saying the word, "shuffle off this mortal coil you. and then there's an expletive i can't use on television. and then you said "this is nothing you wouldn't do to us". you then shot him and told your men that they must keep quiet about this because you knew that you'd just violated the rules of war. so it was premeditated, you were rational at the time. no, ithink... you make a split second decision on the day. the gunshot, there is a 15 to 20 second pause before i say anything after that, when your mind is racing and you know you've done something stupid. why have you done what you've just done? and then i suppose the natural reaction is to try and justify what you've done and seek reassurance from those around you because you know you have done something wrong. you've acted badly, why have you done it? you're not going to drop me in it are you lads?
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and then you move on. so you're worried about getting into trouble. you weren't thinking in moral terms about the fact that you'd just murdered a man? well, it is... it's the mistake has been made. like i said, there is a pause there where i went through that realisation that i'd made a mistake. it's a funny sort of word, ‘mistake'. it's important we tease this out because there are many other cases that we can then discuss about discipline on the battlefield. do you believe now that you have committed a terrible crime? i don't think wrong. i truly believe my actions on the day didn't change the outcome for that gentleman. that's unknowable isn't it? i saw him close up, i saw what the 30mm cannon rounds had done to his body and i've seen enough
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people in various states of, unfortunately, through my service, and in my genuine, honest belief, it was that he was not... i take that but obviously it's not your role as a soldier on the battlefield to play god and you know the geneva conventions article 3 thereof tells you as an active soldier that when you come across an enemy combatant who is either unarmed or wounded or sick to the point where he represents no threat, you have to act in a humanitarian way to try to save a life, not take a life. like i said, it's not great and it's points that i've brought up in my book, it's not something i'm proud of. is there shame? shame, yeah, like i said, i let myself down, let the guys i was serving with down.
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again, if arguably i hadn't been ill at the time, it would never have happened. just on this point, because you're a professional soldier and i know you're very proud of being a professional soldier, would you accept that if others took the action you did on that day and were not then held to account, that would be extraordinarily corrosive for everything connected to discipline, order and any sort of ethics or morality on the battlefield? i think you have to look at every situation individually because the situations and how they evolve and like i said, in my case, the mental health of the person involved, need to be taken into account. it's too hard to just give a broad statement that everything should be punished without a thorough investigation. just another point on this because i have looked at quite a few studies of war crimes and crimes on the battlefield, and for example, going back to the second world war,
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there is significant evidence that the british and american forces committed more abuses against, for example, japanese soldiers in the pacific theatre than they did against germans in the european theatre. one theory is that it is easy to "other" people who look very different, who have a different culture, seem more easy to turn into the enemy and the other and to dehumanise. do you think that may have been relevant to you in afghanistan? no, not personally. i had a great relationship with the locals out there which you could class as the "other" if that's the term you want to use, not that i would. i was there to protect them. i was their police force. i developed a close working relationships with some of the local elders. they never felt threatened,
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or failed to come to ask for help from me in building projects and security concerns. i think, you use the example of obviously japan and the axis forces during the war, if you're going down that road, the way they treated us probably paid more into the way that they were then treated in return. if you look at somewhere like the conflict during the second world war in north africa, it was fought very gentlemanly, prisoners were taken because it's such a harsh environment. water was shared, resources were shared and that was reciprocal on both sides. of course, the danger of an argument which says, that we were only doing to them what they did to us is that you and the british army are supposed to be there upholding values, fighting for a democratic system, a form of governance which of course, the taliban is trying to undermine. you're trying to send a message about british values which frankly your actions... i'm not suggesting it's right.
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i'm just using your example as a reason why that happened back then. from my point of view, that had no bearing on my actions on the day. more my mental health was the key factor there. so let's get back to this long—winded judicial process. the court—martial convicted you of murder. yes. you are a murderer. yes. you were sent to prison initially for ten years, and then it was reduced to eight. you were then the subject of a very high—profile campaign that this was an injustice. and ultimately, i think it was in 2017, an appeal court, martial court, decided that actually, given the new evidence about your mental state, you had committed manslaughter, not murder. do you feel, given how long it took to get to this point, desperately let down by the military? no. you know, i still have great affection for the military, especially the royal marines.
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you know, arguably mistakes were made by legal teams, you know, which were criticised by the appeals court. you know, when you're new to a legal... you know, it was my first real interaction with the justice system. you don't know what to expect and you don't know what looks good. you know, it wasn't ideal. but you know, we worked through it, and you've got to get on with your life. ultimately though, and we discussed this at the very beginning, this has been definitely a life—changing thing for you. yes. it wouldn't have happened if you'd been taken off the battlefield because of the mental illness that you now say you were suffering at the time of this incident. yes. well, it's notjust me. i mean, a number of highly respected... i absolutely respect that. the problem for you is you can't rewrite history, but you should not have been on that battlefield. yes, you could argue that.
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let's now think about what this says more generally about the difficulty of, if you like, policing wars and battlefields. because your case is not isolated. there are many cases involving uk forces in different combat zones, but us forces as well in recent years, which suggest that soldiers do commit crimes, and that very, very often, they are not held to account for those crimes. would you agree? i don't know statistics. i mean, it's possible. i mean, let's be honest, in your experience in afghanistan, did other soldiers do things like you did and were never held to account? not that i was a witness to or aware of. so your action was, as far as you are concerned, uniquely beyond the pale, beyond the rules. i must say i have no direct knowledge of anything similar. so, you know, it would be wrong for me to sort of guess or to assume.
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let's bring this up to date, because it strikes me as very interesting, your perspective on what the new government in the uk, led by borisjohnson, has said about offering more protection to military personnel, protection from what is being called vexatious legal claims. are you supportive of that, or do you think that comes with real problems and issues? again, it's impossible to comment on a case—by—case basis. but if there is a crime done, and there is genuine evidence of that crime, everything should be prosecuted. if, however... like you, you should have been prosecuted. you don't question that. yes, i've not denied that. but if, arguably, where unscrupulous people have, you know, given financial incentives to people who come out and make false accusations, you know, there should be protection against those. donald trump, us president,
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of course, he very recently overturned the demotion and the dishonourable discharge of a naval petty officer by the name of eddie gallagher who had been convicted of breaking the rules by posing with the dead body of an islamic state — very young teenage fighter in mosul, in iraq. i don't know if you followed that case at all, but what do you make of a politician who intervenes and describes said person, eddie gallagher, as a hero, despite the blatant evidence that he had broken the rules of war? it's difficult. and again, us politics and policy are quite different to how things are done everywhere else. donald trump is arguably quite a boisterous, outspoken person, who has his own worldview. i am sure you have many colleagues and comrades who have served in northern ireland alongside you, and many other places too.
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you will know that, going back to 1972 and the terrible incident known as bloody sunday, where i think 13 civilians lost their lives after troops opened fire, there has never been a conviction of a british soldier for involvement in that, although we know the killings took place. you can bring it forward to iraq, and some of the civilians killed in iraq who claimed that british forces were responsible. very few have ever been put into a court and held to account. do you worry that in britain — we can look close to home — in britain, there is a failure repeatedly to hold military personnel to account? i don't know if there is a failure. and again, i think it's hard when you don't know the details of the case. and again, it would be wrong for me to make broad, sweeping statements. but if — you know, generally if there is evidence there, and it's beyond a shadow of a doubt evidence, you'd like to think that
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justice would be done. if there is not that level of evidence, you can understand why convictions aren't taken forward, or prosecutions. i just wonder whether you feel a little resentful of that? because of this one helmetcam that you weren't even aware of, frankly, that's the reason you got convicted. and many others, where there wasn't that specific, clear evidence, have never, ever faced a courtroom. and that's the legal system. if there's no evidence, or if there's insufficient evidence, no—one's prosecuted. and it's hard... no, i don't find that egregious to myself. i don't feel hard done by. you know, if there's no evidence, or there's a lack of evidence, people shouldn't be prosecuted. they shouldn't find themselves in prison. just a final thought, personal thought, on where this has left you. i know now that you work with ex—military people, trying to help them reintegrate into society. because often, like you, many of them have been through severe mental strain and stress. they find it difficult.
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do you feel now that the military was the right career for you to take, or do you wish you'd never got involved ? no, i do it again tomorrow. would you? yes, i loved my service. apart from that one incident and the circumstances around it, i had 16 years of working with some exceptional people, many of whom i'm still good friends with, seeing on a regular basis. i've still got a very close affiliation with the royal marines. i'm a trustee for a local somerset royal marines charity. you know, i have... do you mind me asking, do you have kids? no. i just wonder — if any loved one close to you, young person, was saying i'm thinking of joining up, what do you reckon, what would you say? i would recommend it. i would say that a career in the armed forces of this country is... it's always been seen as a way for people to almost transition away from a life they may not like, you know, to make a bold change. and i think some of the things that
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have come into the armed service, where they've made great strides in looking after the mental health of men and women who serve — you know, i'd argue that the situation i found myself in, when my mental health deteriorated to a point beyond where it should have, wouldn't happen again. you really think that? you see some servicemen today who come out and do feel let down by the military. they say the military covenant, the notion that we went to fight for the country on the basis that the country would look after us, has been broken. and i suspected going into this interview you might be one of those, given the experiences you have had, but you're not saying that. no, my actions were my own. and it would be very easy for me to throw stones at the military and wave the angry fist. but no, like i say, i enjoyed my service. i got a lot from it, some great friends and some great experiences. you know, i'm not going to look back and think, oh, i wish i hadn't havejoined, because i don't think that way. and, like i say, i still recommend it to people.
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the royal marines is a great organisation. many of the other branches of the armed forces i've worked with are full of dedicated people who work tirelessly for the defence of this country. i'm not arguing the mistakes i've occasionally made. but i think again, like i say, the strides that have been made in protecting their mental health, you know, since i've left, you know, hopefully will ensure that people don't find themselves in a similar situation. you know, i might be wrong, but there is work ongoing to make sure that doesn't happen. we have to end there, but alexander blackman, thank you very much for being on hardtalk. thank you. my pleasure.
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hello, we started this week off on a settled note, there's been quite a bit of sunshine around thanks to high pressure, which is with us again on wednesday. a subtle change where we begin to import some slightly less cold air from the atlantic which you will see on the chart throughout wednesday in the orange colours. today is going to be mainly dry but rather cloudy because we are picking up more moisture off the atlantic. many will start cloudy, and it looks like the skies will stay leaden throughout the day. the best of sunny spells will be across eastern scotland, and there could be the odd bright spell further south but a lot more cloud around. the winds will remain light and it could be quite murky in places. temperatures in double figures
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for most, it could be very mild in fact across the north—east of scotland given some good spells of sunshine. as we head through wednesday evening and overnight, it stays cloudy with light winds, often murky as well. if you get the odd hole in the cloud it could turn chilly, but for most it will be a largely frost free night. as we head through thursday and friday, very similar sort of days of high pressure sticking around, light winds and grey skies for many with limited spells of sunshine. temperatures ranging from seven to 11 degrees. we start to see significant changes. into the weekend the area of high pressure retreats to the continent and low pressure moves in from the atlantic. it could still be fairly cloudy across the board on saturday morning, but as the breeze picks up from the south—west, turning windy in the north—west, we will start to see holes in the cloud appearing and sunny spells.
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some showers around but this weather will bring rain to scotland and northern ireland. that weather front spreads across the uk during saturday night into sunday, a very weak feature by the time it reaches the eastern side of the country, so it will be no more than a band of cloud. once that clears through it looks like it will be bright with good spells of sunshine, quite blustery. this is a cooler air mass and it will be cold across the north and west of scotland, here are some of the showers will be falling wintry with snow on the hills. into the start of the following week it will turn more unsettled, a deeper area of low pressure could bring strong winds and spells of rain.
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i'm mariko 0i in singapore, the headlines: 0r persons are commended to keep silent on pain of imprisonment. putting the president on trial. the impeachment of donald trump gets underway in the us senate, but so far the democrats aren't being allowed to call any evidence or witnesses. a trail with no evidence is no trail at all. it is a cover—up. the president himself is thousands of miles away in switzerland at the world economic forum. this is just
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this isjust a hoax.

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