The British soldiers who killed 13 Catholic demonstrators in Northern Ireland during "Bloody Sunday" nearly four decades ago committed "unjustified and unjustifiable" killings of unarmed and innocent victims and then lied about it, a fact-finding investigation concluded Tuesday after a 12-year hunt for the truth.
More than 1,000 Londonderry residents applauded, hugged and cried outside city hall as the long-awaited verdict was announced live on a huge television screen. They had campaigned for 38 years for the victims - originally branded as Irish Republican Army bombers and gunmen - to have their good names restored and the guilt of the soldiers proved beyond doubt.
"Unjustified and unjustifiable. Those are the words we've been waiting to hear since January the 30th of 1972," Tony Doherty, the son of one Bloody Sunday victim, told the crowd to cheers. He was one of dozens of relatives who took turns declaring the innocence of lost loved ones to the crowd as the TV screen displayed black-and-white portraits of each of the 13 dead and 15 wounded.
"The victims of Bloody Sunday have been vindicated, and the soldiers of the Parachute Regiment have been disgraced. Their medals of honour have to be removed!" Doherty declared to more cheers.
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the investigation - based on evidence from 921 witnesses, 2,500 written statements and 60 volumes of written evidence - demonstrated that the soldiers' shooting into the crowd protesting the internment without trial of IRA suspects was "both unjustified and unjustifiable."
Cameron apologized on behalf of the British government, and summarized the findings of English judge Lord Saville: The soldiers never should have been ordered to confront the protesters, they fired the first shots and targeted unarmed people who were clearly fleeing or aiding the helpless wounded. None of those killed or wounded that day in Londonderry had posed a threat to the soldiers, Saville concluded.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, authorized by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998 in the run-up to the negotiation of the Good Friday peace accord that year, was originally budgeted to cost £11 million and report findings by 2002. Instead, the final bill was estimated at nearly £200 million ($290 million) - making it the longest and most expensive inquiry in British legal history. Cameron said Britain would never attempt anything like it again.
But the British, Irish and U.S. governments welcomed the findings as priceless to heal one of the gaping wounds left from Northern Ireland's four-decade conflict that left 3,700 dead. Bloody Sunday fueled a rise in support for the IRA, which didn't ceasefire until 1997 after killing nearly 1,800 people.
"It is our hope that the scale of the inquiry, the quantity of material available and its findings will contribute to greater understanding and reconciliation of what happened on that tragic day," U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in Washington.
Saville said Bloody Sunday represented a watershed event in the conflict, driving 1972 to be the conflict's deadliest year with more than 470 dead.
"What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased (Irish) nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army, and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland," Saville said.
The judge took evidence from former British government officials, the soldiers who opened fire that day, and IRA members involved in the protest. He ruled that a few IRA men did come armed to the demonstration, but the soldiers fired the shots that started the one-sided bloodbath.
Saville gave the paratroopers broad protections from criminal charges as well as anonymity in the witness box, citing the risk IRA dissidents might target them in retaliation. But some legal experts said wiggle room remains for prosecutions and, more likely, civil lawsuits against retired soldiers now in their 60s and 70s, particularly because some ex-soldiers were found to have told lies.
Saville's findings declared several soldiers who opened fire concocted cover stories to justify their shooting of unarmed people in the back. But he cautioned that the inquiry's evidence could not be used "to incriminate that witness in any later criminal proceedings."
"This does not rule out the possibility of future criminal proceedings against an individual, but only means that their own evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry cannot be used against them," Saville wrote.
The original 1972 investigation by another English judge, Lord Widgery, took barely two months to produce a 39-page report that chided soldiers for gunfire that "bordered on the reckless."