Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service has defended its decision to take a former soldier to trial on charges linked to a killing in Co Tyrone almost 50 years ago.

The defendant Dennis Hutchings, who was 80, died yesterday after contracting Covid.

His case had been adjourned for several weeks following confirmation of the diagnosis.

He had been accused of the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham, a 27-year-old vulnerable adult with learning difficulties, near Benburb in 1974.

He was shot in the back from a distance of 90m metres as he ran away from Mr Hutchings' patrol.

He was said to be scared of soldiers and would try to hide when he met them.

Unionist politicians said the decision to prosecute the terminally ill former soldier, who had chronic kidney disease and a heart condition, raised serious questions.

Mr Cunningham's family issued a statement criticising some politicians for what they described as inaccurate commentary.

They said they would respond more fully at a later date.

The case, and the death of Mr Hutchings, has re-ignted the debate in Northern Ireland about how to deal with legacy cases from the Troubles.

The UK government has said it will legislate for an amnesty that would apply across the board - including to soldiers - if politicians cannot agree legacy proposals.

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Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill called on the British and Irish government to follow through on a commitment in June to convene all-party talks on the issue. Ms O'Neill said there had been no real progress.

The Public Prosecution Service said the decision to take a case against Mr Hutchings had been based, in part, on some new material following a PSNI investigation in 2015.

It said High Court judges had assessed the evidence as being sufficient to support a prosecution decision.

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Michael Agnew said that where a charge was as serious as attempted murder it would generally be in the public interest to prosecute.

He said the defendant's age and illness had both been accommodated within the trial process by offering breaks for treatment and rest.

"We can assure the public that all decision-making in this challenging and complex case was taken impartially and independently and fully in accordance with the PPS code for prosecutors."

In their statement, Mr Cunningham's family said it was a difficult time and asked for privacy. It also set out in detail some of the facts of the case.

"It should be noted that none of those who have commented have actually attended the trial and are clearly unaware of the actual facts of the case."

They said these included that Mr Cunningham had been shot in the back from some distance as he ran away, with five rounds fired from two army weapons, including one belonging to Mr Hutchings.

They said the shooting had not been the result of a split second decision and there had been no proper investigation over the decades until the one which had resulted in the current case.

Hutchings critical of decision to pursue him

In a television interview with the BBC done just ahead of the start of his trial, Mr Hutchings criticised the decision to pursue him and other military veterans through the courts.

He said they had been sent to Northern Ireland to do a job and protect civilians, something he claimed they'd done.

"We're being treated as cannon fodder," he said.

He suggested former paramilitaries were not being pursued with the same vigour as ex-soldiers.

"Let's talk about justice for people - the hundreds of incidents they're not investigating the same as they're trying to investigate the military - who were sent here to do a job."

He said he had been given six months to live by his doctors and wanted to clear his name before he died.

He added that the whole system of prosecuting ex-servicemen was "wrong".