The mother of a soldier who killed himself in Afghanistan has written to the solicitor-general formally requesting an inquest into his death in what could become a precedent-setting case.
On Friday Venus Poa, mother of Corporal Douglas Hughes, wrote to Solicitor-General Michael Heron asking him to use his powers under the Coroners Act to order an inquest into the circumstances of her son's death at the forward operating base Romero in Bamiyan province on April 3 last year.
Her move came after coroner Gordon Matenga, of Hamilton, declined to open an inquest because he was satisfied the circumstances of the death had been dealt with by a Defence Force Court of Inquiry "and there is nothing I can usefully add".
Matenga said the witnesses available to the NZDF might not be available to him and the inquiry report accurately reflected what took place "in a way that I would not be able to duplicate".
Poa told the solicitor-general she was upset by that decision as her family should have the right to be heard as a matter of natural justice.
A spokeswoman for the solicitor-general's office said: "We've had a request about the inquest, the solicitor-general will now do a thorough review of the matter. We get the files from the coroner and then review the matter completely and then the solicitor-general will make a decision. It could take some time."
The spokeswoman said there had been cases where people had requested a second inquest into a death, but she could not recall another case where a family member had formally requested a first inquest. "It is unusual."
Poa's request comes after the Sunday Star-Times revealed the details of the Court of Inquiry report last weekend. It found that Hughes took his life just hours after confessing his feelings for a male soldier, and was in the care of his sergeant in the hours leading up to the suicide.
At one point, the sergeant frisked him for a weapon. A couple of months earlier, Hughes told colleagues he was considering killing himself because of continuing speculation about his sexuality. Senior commanders were informed of this.
The report also found inadequacies in the pre-deployment training for Hughes' contingent, known as Crib19. Because of the NZDF's involvement in the Rugby World Cup, training was reduced from five weeks to three, and training outcomes, including stress management and identification, were not achieved.
Poa said in her letter the army had failed in its duty of care towards her son and should not be the only body tasked with investigating his death.
The way he was treated by his superiors and other soldiers needed to be fully investigated, she wrote.
His superiors should have known how upset he was and taken extra care with him, not allowing him access to weapons. Poa said in the letter her son had been in contact with the family before his death talking about stresses, and the family wanted those conversations to be part of the record.
Poa told the Sunday Star-Times that Hughes had called his uncle in Australia about two weeks before his death saying he was under great stress. He also texted his sister to say there had been a "near death" experience.
When his belongings were returned to New Zealand, the family found he had filled out his discharge papers. He wanted to leave the army and work in mines in South Africa.
Chief coroner Neil MacLean has defended Matenga, saying he followed proper procedure. And he saw no connection between the decision and Matenga having made a submission against the gay marriage bill.
Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Rhys Jones criticised the Sunday Star-Times for publishing details of the Court of Inquiry after the coroner had prohibited it.
The newspaper had earlier lodged an Official Information Act request asking the NZDF for the report and other general information about the treatment of gay personnel, but was declined. The reasons cited were Hughes' privacy, respecting the family's wishes and because the case was with the coroner.
Deputy Ombudsman Leo Donnelly said that although Courts of Inquiry were not covered by the act, other information might be able to be released and it was arguable reports generated before the inquiry were not covered by the exemption.
"The fact that there was a Court of Inquiry into one soldier's death doesn't mean there should be a blanket [withholding] for any information about this issue."
Donnelly said coroners did not have the power to veto the release of information.
"Their powers are quite specific, there's got to be a basis under the OIA [for withholding information], the Coroner's Act doesn't operate as a licence to take information out of circulation.
"They do have specific powers about publication of information which comes up in an actual inquest . . . but if there's no inquest, is that power triggered?"
The Sunday Star-Times assisted Venus Poa in lodging her request with the solicitor-general for a coronial inquiry into her son's death.
She asked for assistance and we advised about submitting a formal written request to the solicitor-general and provided her with the correct section of the coronial law under which the request is made.
We went to her home, received her signed letter and provided that to the solicitor-general on her behalf, as she had no immediate way of posting or emailing a letter to the Crown Law Office in Wellington.
The NZ Defence Force is gagging gay military personnel from talking to the media in the wake of revelations that Corporal Douglas Hughes killed himself in Afghanistan after being the subject of continual speculation about his sexuality.
The Sunday Star-Times sought an interview with Squadron Leader Stu Pearce, chairman of Overwatch, a peer support network for homosexual military personnel, but was declined.
"No-one from Overwatch is talking to the media because the media will ask them about Corporal Hughes and they're not allowed to talk about Hughes at the moment," a spokeswoman said.
The Star-Times also sought comment on a new US study which has found gay soldiers who do not reveal their sexuality are more likely to attempt suicide, but none was forthcoming.
The study, by researchers at the University of Montana and other institutions, found suicide attempts by homosexual soldiers was 14.7 per cent compared with 0.0003 per cent for the entire veteran soldier community.
The study also found gay soldiers were twice as likely to develop problems with alcohol and five times as likely to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The US military only recently overturned a ban on gays serving openly, which they have been able to do in New Zealand for many years.
The NZDF released figures last week showing overall suicide rates in the military were lower than in the general population, but did not supply figures on suicide attempts or rates among gay personnel.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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