The men have been told they may face trials for murder, attempted murder and causing grievous bodily injury with intent to endanger life if prosecutors in Northern Ireland believe there is enough evidence against them.
Charges may also be brought against two former Official IRA members involved in the day’s bloodshed.
Fourteen people were killed and at least 15 more wounded when British paratroopers opened fire against what was classed as an illegal civil rights march through the border city on 30 January 1972.
Representatives of the soldiers – who have never been publicly identified – insisted they only started shooting after fearing they themselves were about to come under attack from the 30,000 strong crowd.
But initial official attempts to suggest the dead had been armed with guns or nail bombs were dismissed in what became the longest-running and most expensive public inquiry in British history.
The Saville Inquiry, which lasted 12 years and ran to millions of words, concluded in 2010 that the killings had been “unjustified and unjustifiable” – a finding which first opened up the possibility of criminal charges being made against the veterans involved.
In a statement to the Parliament at the time, then prime minister David Cameron unreservedly apologised to the families of the victims.
A police inquiry was subsequently launched against 20 suspects – 18 former members of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, as well as two former “Official IRA” members – although one soldier has since died.
The complex investigation took in 668 witness statements as well as numerous physical exhibits including photographs and audio recordings before files were passed to the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland.
Reacting to the news that a decision on charges was imminent, families of those killed said they had spent almost half a century searching for justice.
John Kelly, who saw his 17-year-old brother Michael killed that day, told The Guardian: “He would have been 64 had he lived. Those soldiers have to face the consequence of what they did. I believe they should get a life sentence. None of them have ever shown any remorse, not at the Saville Inquiry or since.”
The 70-year-old added: “I was with Michael when he was shot. I went in the ambulance with him. I can still see him lying there. He was a young boy. His face turned grey and a sort of green colour. I was in the mortuary afterwards. There were nine or 10 bodies. It was pure carnage. My mother never got over the loss of her son.”
In a letter to MPs pre-empting the announcement of the potential charges, the Ministry of Defence said, if any were brought, it would fund the defence bills of the veterans – most of who are thought to be in their 70s and 80s.
It said: “We are committed to providing high-quality welfare and pastoral support to all those veterans affected by historic investigations… Barristers, including senior counsel, will be instructed to represent individual veterans in any court proceedings that follow or to advise on specialist areas of laws as necessary.”
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