14:43, March 16 358 0 theguardian.com

2017-03-16 14:43:02
Former marine cleared of murder 'should be freed immediately'

Former marine sergeant Alexander Blackman, whose murder conviction for shooting dead a Taliban prisoner was quashed this week and replaced with one of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility, should be freed from prison immediately, his legal team will argue.

A re-sentencing hearing for Blackman, who was jailed in 2013 for shooting dead an injured Taliban fighter in Afghanistan, is to take place on 24 March.

His barrister, Jonathan Goldberg QC, will plead in mitigation for Blackman and is expected to argue that he has already served long enough in jail and should be released.

Blackman has served almost three and a half years is in civilian prisons – the equivalent of a seven-year term with respect to parole eligibility. He will appear at the re-sentencing via video link from Erlestoke prison in Wiltshire.

Blackman was due to remain behind bars until 2021 before he could even be considered for parole, but on Wednesday the court martial appeal court ruled that the murder conviction should be quashed and replaced with manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The judges heard that he was suffering from a mental health condition called adjustment disorder that had impaired his judgment.

Goldberg said Blackman was “grateful and relieved”. He said serving a life sentence, which means a prisoner does not know when he will be freed, had been difficult. “He is hoping the time served will suffice and he will be allowed immediate release.”

Of the former marine’s wife, Claire Blackman, who has led the campaign to have him released, Goldberg said: “She’s very emotional, very overjoyed, very grateful for the support she has had from so many members of the public.”

A source close to the campaign said Blackman had had job offers and was also considering writing a book on his experiences.

But there are concerns that Blackman could be the target of Islamist terrorists when he comes out and the campaign source said special security measures already in place for Claire Blackman are to be beefed up when her husband is freed.

The thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, one of the most vociferous campaigners for Blackman, is calling for an inquiry into the Royal Marines’ handling of him and his comrades in Helmand.

A witness statement seen by the Guardian written by a former marine colonel, Oliver Lee, claimed the leadership and oversight of Blackman by his commanders in Helmand in 2011 was “shockingly bad”.

Forsyth said: “I think the Marine Corps need to have an inquiry into what went wrong. The reaction of the senior ranks of the Marine Corps as to turn their backs on a loyal servant. They may have to be held to account for that.

“If the judiciary have any integrity they will order an inquiry into the court martial [at which Blackman was found guilty of murder]. It was a thoroughly unhappy episode in British judicial history. The court martial merits forensic examination.”

In prison, Blackman has been doing an Open University degree, helps to organise sporting matches, counsels fellow inmates and teaches maths. When there was a disturbance at the prison he helped to quell it.

Neil Greenberg, one of the psychiatrists whose diagnosis of Blackman led to the quashing of the murder conviction, said there should be automatic mental assessments for service personnel accused of serious crimes. No psychiatric assessment of Blackman was carried out for the original court martial. “It’s strange he wasn’t at least assessed,” he said.

Greenberg, a professor in defence mental health at King’s College London, said the military did have good procedures – but that they weren’t put place for Blackman. “I’m really unclear why his unit didn’t provide him with the standard levels of support that were available. The military have plenty of good procedures, the question is why they weren’t applied.”