WHEN Lee Clegg joined the British Army he was a working-class teenager with neither high ranking military connections nor powerful political associates. His greatest claim to fame was that he was a member of the elite parachute regiment working in Belfast at the time of The Troubles. Even after Clegg shot and killed a teenage joyrider in controversial circumstances in 1990 his case remained relatively obscure outside Northern Ireland's capital. Later, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, his conviction caused barely a ripple in British society. Today, however, Private Lee Clegg is perhaps the most famous, well-connected soldier of his menial rank in Britain thanks to an extraordinary public campaign for his release. Those who Clegg can now count as allies read like a Who's Who of British establishment with 100 MPs (mainly Conservative); the top brass of the British military and the country's powerful right-wing press all battling for the 26-year-old's release. These most unlikely of civil rights activists say that Clegg is innocent of murder and has been a scapegoat for carrying out his duty in extreme conditions. According to the campaigners, Clegg made a fatal but understandable mistake when he fired on a speeding car which 'smashed' through an army checkpoint in September 1990. In an area reportedly notorious for IRA activity, it was highly likely that the car contained terrorists who planned to attack the patrol, they say. Unfortunately, after more than 30 bullets forced the vehicle to a halt, the only bodies found inside were those of 17-year-old Martin Peake and 18-year-old Karen Reilly - not highly trained assassins but reckless teenager joyriders. Clegg was convicted because one of the four bullets which he fired was found in Karen Reilly's back proving he had fired after the vehicle had passed when it had posed no further threat. But while the lobbyists voice their outrage over what they believe is a disproportionately severe sentence, those across the Irish Sea are equally dismayed by the version of events which is being served up unquestioned to the British public. The omission of vital details and misrepresentation of facts has angered the nationalist community who believe the case is being distorted for political means. To begin with, Clegg campaigners have been portraying the scene of the shooting, Belfast's Glen Road, as an area notorious for IRA activity. But both the army and the local communities are well aware that the only crime being perpetrated here on a nightly basis is joyriding - a problem endemic in economically depressed west Belfast. In fact, on that particular night, Clegg's patrol had been specifically enlisted to apprehend the offenders following a high number of resident complaints to the state's police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The campaigners' assertion that the car 'smashed through' a checkpoint has also been misrepresented in the British media. Although the soldiers were conducting a checkpoint it was a 'rolling' one, that is, it consisted of soldiers walking along the side of the road with a red torch and did not involve any physical barrier. Another driver on the same road minutes before the shooting later told how he had been surprised when soldiers - who he said were 'hyped up' - had emerged from the bushes unexpectedly. But the most serious omission - and evidence which almost certainly guaranteed Clegg's conviction - was the clumsy attempt by other soldiers to stage a cover-up by pretending that one of their colleagues had been hit by the car. As the trial heard, one soldier was told to 'get down' while others stamped on his leg and used a rifle butt to bruise him. The 'injured' soldier was convicted of attempting pervert the course of justice and Clegg's subsequent testimony of firing into the car as protection was found to be a 'grossly disproportionate' use of force. 'The thousands jumping on the bandwagon led by the British right-wing press has disgusted people here,' says Joe Hendron, west Belfast's MP from the Social Democratic Labour Party, the main Catholic party in Northern Ireland. 'People here don't want blood and revenge but facts are being distorted for political means. 'Everyone here knows that the IRA don't speed through roadblocks but people in London don't know that. If everyone is so innocent why did they try to cover up?' The campaign for Clegg's release began after a second appeal at the Law Lords failed last January and quickly gathered support from media organisations sympathetic to the army's philosophy. The Sun newspaper offered 'Free Clegg' posters and launched a letter-writing campaign to John Major. The Daily Mirror opened with a two photo 'Clegg family album' and the Daily Telegraph interviewed the paratrooper three times in just over a week, its front page headline declaring 'I am a scapegoat'. Clegg himself was given unprecedented access to radio interviewers from his cell in Wakefield prison, reiterating that he had merely been doing his duty for 'Queen and country'. The media transformation of Clegg into a working-class hero who was a victim of circumstances has appealed to a sympathetic British public. They responded with more than two million signatures on a petition sent to Downing Street and over GBP76,000 (HK$937,000) in tiny, individual donations towards Clegg's legal fees. Even armed with alternative information which eventually came to light, many appear to have simplified the long war which has characterised Northern Ireland and come out in favour of Clegg, the person perceived to be on 'the right side'. . . But what is even more remarkable - and what has angered Irish civil rights campaigners here - is the rapid response of the British Government to the case. While Irish campaigners waited decades for the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases to receive even public recognition in Britain, the Clegg campaign produced an unprecedented prime ministerial statement in the Commons just a week after its launch. Two months later the Northern Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, ordered a re-examination of the conviction for June - a review usually only applicable for prisoners who have served at least 10 years. CLEGG has served only 21/2 years of his life sentence but, with soldiers now off the streets as the peace process gathers momentum, few nationalists in Belfast expect that he will remain behind bars after the June review. It won't please the many critics of the army's role in Ulster's troubles. In more than 300 security forces killings in the past 25 years, only 30 soldiers have been charged and only four have been convicted of murder. The average rate of conviction in Northern Ireland's juryless Diplock courts is 70 per cent but in security force killings the number falls to just over 10 per cent. The first soldiers to be convicted for the murder of an unarmed Belfast teenager was Private Ian Thaine. Less than three years later he was released and, according to locals, promoted to a post in Germany where he trains British soldiers sent to Northern Ireland. However, General Air Napier Crookenden, a 79-year-old former paratrooper and head of the Clegg Committee of retired officers, believes it is wrong to consider Clegg's case alongside other security force killings. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, and the mainstream Catholic SDLP are supportive providing that 'other political prisoners' are also set free. 'There are republicans in jail facing 20 years,' says Billy McBride, a Sinn Fein member whose nephew, Peter, was killed by two Scots Guardsmen in 1992. Mark Wright, 21, and James Fisher, 28 were convicted of his murder in February, at the height of the Clegg campaign. 'In my heart and soul I know the two who murdered him will be out in a couple of years so my own opinion is yes, release them if we can get something in return.' The trial judge in that recent case joined others in the judiciary in calling for the system to be changed to allow discretion in sentencing. (At present, a soldier can only be convicted for murder and not the lesser charge of manslaughter). Ironically, the military and the RUC are vehemently opposed to such a reform because the 'all or nothing' strategy now in place has led to few charges and even fewer convictions. If lesser, easier to prove charges were made available, it could open the floodgates to a whole host of controversial security force shootings for which no one has been charged. Yet such a review could go some way to redressing the widespread nationalist belief that British justice is hypocritical and give some comfort to families of victims like Martin Peake. Although he was killed alongside Karen Reilly that same night, no one has ever stood trial for his murder because it could not be determined who had fired the bullet that ended his life.