Belfast judge orders alleged IRA dissidents freed

March 25, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Northern Ireland's senior judge ordered police to free six suspected IRA dissidents interrogated over killings of British security forces, saying Wednesday that they were being held illegally. Detectives speedily released the suspects -- then promptly re-arrested the most prominent figure in the group, former Irish Republican Army prisoner Colin Duffy. The other five were driven away at high speed from the police's main interrogation center.

Lord Chief Justice Brian Kerr ruled that all six were being held illegally. Britain's Terrorism Act permits suspects to be questioned for up to 28 days, with judicial extensions each week. Kerr said a recent hearing extending their detention to 14 days had been mishandled. The men were held for 11 days each without charge.

Detectives have spent the past two weeks arresting and interrogating suspected IRA dissidents over this month's killings -- the first of British security forces since 1998, the year of Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord.

Two off-duty, unarmed British soldiers aged 21 and 23 were gunned down outside an army base as they collected pizzas March 7; two other soldiers and both pizza couriers were wounded. Two days later, a 48-year-old policeman was fatally shot through the back of the head as he sat in his patrol car.

The first two suspects to be taken into police custody -- a 17-year-old boy and former Sinn Fein politician Brendan McConville -- were arrested March 10 and charged this week with killing the policeman and possessing an assault rifle and ammunition.

The teenager was arraigned Tuesday. His name was not released because he is minor.

McConville didn't speak during his first court appearance Wednesday in a Belfast suburb. He was ordered held without bail pending his next court appearance April 3. His lawyer said he intended to deny the charges against him.

McConville was a town councilman for Sinn Fein until 1997, when the mainstream IRA stopped its 27-year effort to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. He drifted away from the party following its landmark 2007 moves to forge a power-sharing government with Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority and to begin supporting the police force.

Kerr faulted the authorization Saturday of their detention beyond the original seven-day limit, saying a judge had failed to assess the legality of their original arrests in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Duffy's lawyer, Pat Vernon, said after his rearrest that he would file a new lawsuit challenging its legality. Lawyers representing the other five freed men said they might sue the police and British government for damages.

Britain's security minister for Northern Ireland, Paul Goggins, said Kerr had ordered the six men freed "on a very narrow procedural ground."

Duffy's family in Lurgan, a bitterly divided town southwest of Belfast, issued a statement accusing the Northern Ireland police of demonstrating "complete disregard" for Kerr's ruling. The statement said Duffy was the victim of a vendetta.

Duffy, 41, was convicted of killing a former soldier in Lurgan in 1993, but was freed on appeal three years later after the key witness against him was identified as a member of an outlawed Protestant gang.

He was back behind bars within a year after police identified him as the gunman who committed the IRA's last two killings before its cease-fire: two Protestant policemen shot point-blank through the backs of their heads while on a Lurgan foot patrol in June 1997.

That case against Duffy collapsed after the prosecution's key witness suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew her testimony. Two years later, Protestant extremists assassinated Duffy's lawyer, Rosemary Nelson, with a car bomb.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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