British prosecutors have charged six people, including four ex-police chiefs, over the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium crush which killed 96 Liverpool fans.
The victims died in an overcrowded, fenced-in enclosure at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, northern England, during an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
Police at first blamed the tragedy on drunken fans, an explanation that was always rejected by the families of the victims and the wider Liverpool community. Relatives spent decades campaigning for justice for the 96.
Hillsborough memorial service at Anfield
“I have decided that there is sufficient evidence to charge six individuals with criminal offences,” including manslaughter by negligence, perverting the course of justice and misconduct in public office, said a statement by Sue Hemming, head of the special crime and counterterrorism division at the Crown Prosecution Service.
The most high-profile defendant is former police chief superintendent David Duckenfield, who was in charge of police operations at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster. He was charged with manslaughter.
Relatives of the victims, who were told of the decision in private shortly before it was made public, embraced outside the building where they were briefed in Warrington, northern England.
‘Success for society at large’
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from Warrington, said the announcement of criminal charges was “a breakthrough of sorts” for the families of the victims.
“They went in with their lawyers [and had] lengthy discussions about what this exactly means. They are acutely aware that the decision to charge six people means that the matter is now sub judice and they don’t want to jeopardise the potential for a successful prosecution by saying something that would later come to be used in favour of the suspect in this case,” he said.
“But they have stuck together over these past 28 years, they have fought and successfully beaten the system by getting this far, and the relief on their faces was clear to see,” Brennan added.
Campaigner Trevor Hicks, who lost daughters Sarah, 19, and Vicki, 15, said the charges served as a warning to authorities across the country.
“This is a success for society at large, it sends out a message of accountability,” he said, making reference to the Grenfell Tower fire in London this month, which left 79 people presumed dead.
“Families will come after you if you don’t do your jobs properly,” he added.
Barry Devonside, who survived the stadium disaster but lost his 18-year-old son Christopher, pumped his fist as he emerged from the building. He was visibly emotional as he told reporters how he had felt going into the briefing.
“I was frightened, absolutely frightened that we were going to be let down again. It’s so very hard to fight for justice over the period of time that the families have had to fight,” he said.
“And we’ve been smacked in the face on a number of occasions. Fortunately the families have acted with the utmost of dignity,” he said.
He was referring to a series of flawed investigations in the past.
|Louise Brooks and Donna Miller campaign for victims of the Hillsborough disaster in Warrington [Andy Yates/Reuters]|
Six people charged
Duckenfield was charged with the manslaughter by gross negligence of 95 men, women and children, Hemming said.
“We will allege that David Duckenfield’s failures to discharge his personal responsibility were extraordinarily bad and contributed substantially to the deaths of each of those 96 people who so tragically and unnecessarily lost their lives,” she said.
He was not charged over the death of the 96th casualty, who died four years after the disaster, because of legal time limits that were in force at the time.
Norman Bettison, a former police chief constable, was charged with four offences of misconduct in public office relating to telling alleged lies about his involvement in the aftermath of the disaster and the culpability of fans.
Two other ex-police chiefs, Donald Denton and Alan Foster, were charged with perverting the course of justice over alleged changes they made to witness statements used during the original investigation and inquest into the Hillsborough deaths.
A lawyer who acted for police, Peter Metcalf, was also charged with perverting the course of justice over similar allegations.
Graham Mackrell, who was Sheffield Wednesday Football Club’s company secretary and safety officer at the time of the disaster, was charged with contravening safety rules and failing to take reasonable care for the health and safety of others.
The defendants, other than Duckenfield, will appear at Warrington Magistrates’ Court on August 9 for a first hearing in their prosecution.
Duckenfield is in a different situation because he was privately prosecuted in 1999, following which a senior judge imposed a stay. Prosecutors will need to apply to a High Court judge to lift the stay and order that the public prosecution go forward.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies