(CN) — The trial of a former British soldier accused of killing two unarmed civilians and wounding four others 47 years ago during the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland is due to start Wednesday.
The first hearing will be held in magistrate court in Londonderry, the city where Bloody Sunday occurred on Jan. 30, 1972.
The accused ex-soldier, whose identity has been shielded, will not appear at the hearing.
The ex-soldier, known only as “Soldier F,” is accused of killing James Wray and William McKinney. The former soldier, now in his 60s, also faces four counts of attempted murder. Northern Irish prosecutors brought charges against him in March.
The Wednesday hearing is expected to deal with a challenge to the proceedings by Soldier F’s lawyers. A defendant is not compelled to attend such a hearing.
The prosecution comes after a 12-year inquiry into Bloody Sunday found British paratroopers were unjustified in shooting civilians during a civil rights march in Londonderry. The inquiry, released in 2010, found that the soldiers had not come under fire, as they testified, but opened fire on unarmed civilians.
Prosecutors said they could not bring charges against 17 other soldiers involved in the shootings. Prosecutors said their cases were hampered in large part because evidence presented to the Bloody Sunday inquiry could not be relied upon for criminal cases. Prosecutors said they believed they did not have enough evidence to prove other cases in court.
Soldier F was a member of the Parachute Regiment, an elite branch of the British military that was sent to Northern Ireland as sectarian conflict increased. The regiment was accused of indiscriminately killing civilians in Belfast in August 1971 in the Ballymurphy massacre. An inquiry is examining those civilian deaths now.
The trial is contentious in the United Kingdom because opinions are split on whether former soldiers should face prosecution.
Many military veterans, British politicians and Protestants in Northern Ireland opposed the trial. In recent weeks, a Protestant neighborhood in Londonderry flew a Parachute Regiment flag, an act that drew a lot of criticism.
On the other side, the family members of victims and those who are pro-Irish support the prosecution.
“People in Derry welcome this trial,” said Kate Nash, a campaigner and sister of a man killed in Bloody Sunday, in an email to Courthouse News.
She said she didn’t “know what to expect” from a prosecution that has “been fraught with delays for almost half a century.”
The events of Bloody Sunday were widely condemned at the time, but British authorities declared in a first inquiry that the soldiers opened fire because they had come under attack by members of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army.
The Bloody Sunday killings were a pivotal moment in the conflict in Northern Ireland and led to an upsurge in attacks and rising support for the IRA.
In 1998, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government agreed to open a new inquiry into the killings. That probe became Britain’s longest and most expensive public inquiry.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)