A plea to have Boer War soldier Harry “Breaker” Morant posthumously pardoned has been rejected by Australia’s Attorney General, Nicola Roxon, who has refused to take his case to the British government.
Commander James Unkles, an Australian military lawyer, has been seeking a pardon for Morant and his two co-accused who were convicted by a British court-martial of the murder of 12 prisoners of war more than a century ago.
Morant was executed by a firing squad in Pretoria in 1902, along with Peter Handcock, a fellow Australian soldier. His story, which was made into the film Breaker Morant starring the late Edward Woodward, has proven one of the most controversial episodes in Australia’s military history.
For three years, Commander Unkles has been seeking an official pardon from the British government, arguing Morant and his co-accused were following orders and were subsequently denied the right to properly prepare the case.
In 2010 the then Australian Attorney General, Robert McClelland, asked then British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, to examine Unkles’ material, but the appeal was rejected.
A fresh petition was submitted to Ms Roxon, who rejected the appeal and said she did not want to “gloss over” the crimes of the three men. The third co-accused, George Witton, was sentenced to life in prison but freed in 1904.
“It would not be appropriate for the Australian government to advocate for a pardon when there is no dispute that Mssrs Morant, Handcock and Witton actually committed the killings of unarmed Boer prisoners and others,” Ms Roxon wrote in a letter to Commander Unkles.
“I consider that seeking a pardon for these men could be rightly perceived as ‘glossing over’ very grave criminal acts.” Commander Unkles said Ms Roxon or her advisers were afraid of offending the British Government and had “made a political decision”.
“They don’t want to offend the British, and there are powerful institutions and individuals in this country who want to make sure that this case goes no further,” he told ABC radio.
“According to military law at the time, these men were entitled to a full and fair trial, and in particular that they had a right of appeal. The British denied that right of appeal and gave them 18 hours’ notice before two of them were executed.”
An Australian historian, Craig Wilcox, said the court-martial had been fair and lasted about five weeks – far longer than the standard three days for civilian murder trials.
It was thorough; it was fair by the standards of the day,” he said.
“One of their own men said that any idea of orders was a bogus idea. No evidence of any orders have ever been found.”