Letters sent to military veterans who may have witnessed Troubles-era incidents have been branded a “new witch-hunt” by Justice for Veterans UK (JFVUK).
In what is understood to be the largest ever trawl of its kind, ex-soldiers are being asked by the MoD to provide statements ahead of a number of new legacy inquest hearings.
Former head of the Army, General the Lord Dannatt, has also said retired soldiers should not be forced to co-operate, describing the letters as “extremely unwelcome”.
Anto Wickham of JFVUK said his group is calling for a “level playing field” for veterans – not an amnesty for anyone who broke the law as some have claimed.
“This new witch-hunt is disgraceful and unwelcome,” he said.
“Yet again, veterans are being hunted down and treated like we were the terrorists.
“We are not calling for an amnesty for veterans – if a soldier broke the law and there is evidence to bring him in front of the courts then that should happen, however that has to be the same for the IRA.
“We are calling for a level playing field, not this one-sided witch-hunt,” he added.
Lord Dannatt said: “There should be no obligation on soldiers to co-operate because they have previously given evidence on the assurance of no further action being taken when this has proved a false promise.”
“I think this is an extremely unwelcome, worrying move,” he told the Mail on Sunday.
The former general said some of the soldiers he served with during a tour of duty in Belfast in 1971 would now be in their late 70s or 80s, and added: “Asking them to recall shootings from back then is outrageous. Veterans will wonder what is behind this and when this will end.”
An MoD spokesperson said: “The MoD plays an active role supporting coroners with legacy inquests and part of the process involves contacting and supporting veterans.
“The overwhelming majority of those who served in Northern Ireland did so with great bravery and distinction.”
The spokesman added: “Any member of the military affected by any form of investigation into Troubles-related incidents will rightly be supported throughout and anyone suspected of a criminal offence will receive free MoD legal representation.”
In June, 76-year-old former soldier Dennis Hutchings was formally charged in connection with a fatal shooting of John Patrick Cunningham near Benburb in Co Armagh in 1971. He has “vehemently denied” the attempted murder charge.
Writing in the News Letter earlier this year, Belfast-based lawyer Neil Faris queried the general assumption that legacy inquests are the only way to resolve outstanding state-related Troubles deaths.
Mr Faris said that while there is a legal requirement to hold “effective, independent investigations into all the deaths during the course of the Troubles”, inquests are not the only means of achieving such an outcome.
There are currently 94 outstanding deaths in legacy inquests. A News Letter analysis of the inquest list found that at least 35 of the dead were terrorists. Among them are the eight IRA men and one civilian shot dead by the SAS at Loughgall in 1987.
JFVUK are holding a march in Newtownards on Saturday, September 9, the latest in a series of protests against the fresh investigations.
The same group has already held marches in Belfast, Portadown, Antrim and Coleraine.
Londonderry had been chosen for the protest in March this year but the event was switched to Coleraine after a number of sinister statements from republican groups appeared online – calling for “mass mobilisation” to “forcefully and radically” confront participants.
Those veterans taking part in the September 9 march will meet outside the Royal British Legion (RBL) hall in Court Street at 1.30pm. They will be led on a lap of the town at 2pm by Newtownards Melody flute band.
The RBL has stressed that anyone taking part in JFVUK protests “should do so in their personal capacity and not as a representative of the Legion,” or using RBL imagery.