A push to obtain a pardon for Breaker Morant, the Anglo-Australian war criminal executed during the Boer War, has foundered after Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, on advice from her department, declined to pursue the issue.

Morant, who was serving in a South Australian unit under British command, was court-martialled and convicted in 1902 for the murder of Boer prisoners and a Dutch civilian, allegedly as a reprisal for guerilla attacks in what had become a bloody and vicious conflict in South Africa. Morant and his co-defendants partly relied on the defence that they were following orders, a defence later rejected at Nuremberg.

Morant has since become a storied figure in Australian history, particularly after Kit Denton’s 1973 novel The Breaker and Bruce Beresford’s 1980 film, based on Kenneth Ross’s play.

A push by James Unkles for the reconsideration of Morant’s case, along with that of Peter Handcock (also executed) and George Witton (who was gaoled), and a pardon by the British government has been underway for some time – the Australian government having no jurisdiction in British military trials. The British government rejected any reconsideration of the case in 2010.

Roxon today advised Unkles that the government would not be pursuing the issue further with the British, on the basis that there was no doubt that the three men had committed the killings for which they were convicted. The Australian government’s position is that pardons are only appropriate where an offender is both”morally and technically innocent” of the offence. Roxon also noted the seriousness of the offences involved, explaining to Unkles that “I consider that seeking a pardon for these men could be rightly perceived as ‘glossing over’ very grave criminal acts.”