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.
Cameron said that evidence contained in 400,000 pages of previously undisclosed papers turned over to the families of the dead on Wednesday detailed sophisticated attempts by police to turn the blame for the disaster onto the victims and to sully their reputations by insinuating that many were drunken, and had histories of violence or criminality.
"New evidence that we are presented with today makes clear that these families have suffered a double injustice," Cameron told the House of Commons. "The injustice of the appalling events, the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth, and the injustice of the denigration of the deceased — that they were somehow at fault for their own deaths."
"On behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am profoundly sorry for this double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long," he told legislators, many of whom gasped audibly or wept as Cameron discussed details of failures by British authorities.
Though a report by the panel said it was not possible to say conclusively whether a better response from emergency services could have saved specific individuals, panel member Dr. Bill Kirkup told reporters that 41 fans had the "potential to survive."
Cameron said that Attorney General Dominic Grieve would review the evidence and likely apply to Britain's High Court to overturn the verdict of an original inquest hearing and order a new hearing. An inquest jury ruled in 1991 that the deaths were accidental, but criticized the local South Yorkshire Police for its actions.
"With all the documents revealed, with nothing held back, the families finally have access to the truth," Cameron said.
The response to the Hillsborough disaster transformed British sports, bringing the introduction of all-seated soccer stadiums for elite clubs. In turn, that helped the clubs to 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 violent English football fans had been the scourge of Europe, and clubs banned from participating in pan-European competitions, the changes instilled a new confidence in Britain's ability to host sporting events — a development which culminated this summer in London's hugely successful, and trouble-free, hosting of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
Relatives, who were reviewing the documents at Liverpool Cathedral, said they plan to meet in the coming days to discuss whether any new legal action should be taken.
"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," said Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James was killed.
Bishop James Jones of Liverpool, who led the government-appointed panel, said the documents included clear evidence of failings by British authorities.
"The documents disclosed to and analyzed by the panel show that the tragedy should never have happened. There were clear operational failures in response to the disaster and in its aftermath there were strenuous attempts to deflect the blame onto the fans," he said.
FIFA, the governing body for world football at least 1,500 people died and about 6,000 were injured in 60 major incidents at sports events between 1971 and 2011.