MPs refuse to cut life sentence for deserters

SOLDIERS who desert the armed forces because they refuse to serve in a foreign military occupation could still face life in prison after a bid to cut the sentence was rejected by MPs.

An amendment to the Armed Forces Bill that would have reduced the maximum jail term for deserters to two years was overwhelmingly rejected. Instead, MPs voted 442-19 to keep life imprisonment.

Left-wing Labour MPs joined forces with the SNP to try to reduce the tariff.

John McDonnell, the chairman of Labour's Campaign Group, claimed the plans were part of a government crackdown on servicemen and women opposed to the war in Iraq. He said the punishment was "inhuman and barbaric".

Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, said those who "besmirched parliament" and sold peerages faced a maximum of two years, while soldiers could be punished with a life sentence. "Two years is enough for somebody who has, arguably, followed their own conscience," he said.

But Patrick Mercer, a Tory MP and former army officer, said desertion was a grave offence and added that the life sentence had not been applied widely in recent times.

Chris Bryant, a Welsh Labour MP, said reducing the life sentence would "undermine many of our operations" and bring "ethical chaos" to the armed forces.

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