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Sep, 12, 2012

PM David Cameron apologizes

LONDON -- British police tried to blame soccer fans to cover up mistakes that contributed to the deaths of 96 supporters who were crushed at a stadium in 1989, according to secret documents released Wednesday following a lengthy campaign by families of the victims.

Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for Britain's worst sports disaster and said the country had been shamed by its failure for more than 20 years to disclose the errors that helped lead to the death of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough stadium, most of whom were crushed and suffocated in a standing-room-only section.

A government-appointed panel that reviewed the papers confirmed failures by police led directly to the disaster and that some injured fans were denied medical treatment that could have saved their lives, he said.

Police officers herded around 2,000 Liverpool fans into caged-in enclosures that were already full during an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989, at the stadium in Sheffield, central England.

No individual or organization has ever faced charges in connection with the disaster.

After battling for more than 20 years, the families were reviewing 400,000 pages of previously undisclosed papers detailing the actions of British police, paramedics and officials who initially investigated the deaths of the 96 Liverpool fans.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel has been assessing the documents over the past year and a half, with the report of its findings also available for the families to view at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral.

Cameron said that Attorney General Dominic Grieve will review the report to determine whether to order a new investigation. It will be for the court to make the final decision.

Documentation examined by the panel, chaired by the Right Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, came from more than 80 different organisations. The documents were made public Wednesday after being released to the families.

The 96 fans died when they were crushed and suffocated in a standing-room-only section of the Hillsborough football stadium during a major soccer match, an FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989.

The report and the release of the documents follow more than two decades of campaigning by the families of those who died on the terraces at the Leppings Lane end as they went to watch their team play at Sheffield Wednesday's ground 23 years ago.

MPs agreed to the disclosure of Cabinet papers last year -- a move breaking with the convention that such papers are not usually published until 30 years after they are written.

An inquest jury ruled in 1991 that the deaths the stadium in central England were accidental, but the local South Yorkshire Police were strongly criticized for their actions. Officers had herded around 2,000 Liverpool fans into caged-in enclosures that were already full, resulting in the crush.

Permission for the papers' release came after a House of Commons debate triggered when 140,000 people signed a government e-petition set up by Brian Irvine, a Liverpool fan.

After the tragedy -- Britain's worst sporting disaster -- Lord Chief Justice Taylor led an independent inquiry which concluded that the main cause of the fatal crush had been a lack of crowd control by South Yorkshire police. The Crown Prosecution Service ruled that there was insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution.

The papers being released Wednesday are expected to reveal more about how events unfolded, their aftermath and the response of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government.

Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, said: "This is what the families and the fans have been fighting for for 23 years. Without the truth, you cannot grieve, and where there is deceit, you get no justice."

The families say it is an injustice that no individual or organisation has ever been held fully accountable for the disaster. They say South Yorkshire Police never initiated a major incident plan, and that those in the Leppings Lane end did not get emergency medical attention.

Many feel a cover-up was organised to deflect blame from the police on to the Liverpool supporters. In the aftermath, the South Yorkshire force claimed the disaster had been caused by drunk supporters, many without tickets, forming a crush outside the ground.

Four months later, the Taylor report dismissed those claims and criticised the police for putting them forward. At the inquest into the deaths, police repeated their effort to blame the disaster on supporters.

The 1991 inquest ruled that all the victims had died 15 minutes after the game began at 3 p.m. -- but this is disputed by relatives, who want to know whether more lives could have been saved. Many would like to see a new inquest opened because the original refused to hear evidence from after 3:15 p.m.

A two-minute silence will be held in Liverpool at 3:06 p.m., the exact moment the semifinal was stopped as the scale of the disaster that was unfolding became apparent.

Sheffield Wednesday have offered an apology to the relatives of those killed at the club's ground and said they hoped the release of the documents would "bring closure."

The response to the disaster transformed the British sports world, bringing the introduction of all-seated soccer stadiums. That also helped clubs drive out the remnants of hooliganism that had long tainted British soccer and heralded a shift in the demographics of sports fans, as improved stadium safety meant more families and women attended matches.

After an era in which English football clubs were banned from participating in pan-European competitions as a result of fan violence, the changes to stadiums instilled a new confidence in British sport. That sense of pride was reflected this summer in London's hugely successful -- and trouble-free -- hosting of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

No individual or organization has ever faced charges in connection with the Hillsborough disaster, but the families believe the newly disclosed papers could help them hold accountable those who were culpable.

FIFA, the governing body for world football, says between 1971 and 2011, at least 1,500 people died and about 6,000 were injured in 60 major incidents at sports events.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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