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9 October 2003 Edition

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Families demand dropping of charges against Stormont accused

One year on from the high profile arrest operations and the raids on Sinn Féin's Stormont office that created the ongoing crisis in the Peace Process, the families of the four people detained have called for the charges of gathering information against Denis Donaldson, Ciaran Kearney, Fiona Farrelly and Billy Mackessy to be dropped.

All four were arrested from their homes in Belfast in October 2002 as the PSNI carried out raids in homes across the North and were subsequently accused of intelligence gathering.

As well as the house raids, the PSNI, under the gaze of the media, carried out a high-profile raid on Sinn Féin's Stormont offices, thus triggered one of the most serious crises in the peace process to date.

Operation Torsion saw Special Branch carry out surveillance against republicans. This included break-ins and the handing of documents - which are now being used by the prosecution against the four - just days before the much publicised raids and arrests.

The statement from the Donaldson, Kearney, Mackessy and Farrelly families is printed here in full:

"It is now one year since the Special Branch's 'Operation Torsion' entered its final stage. According to BBC reporter Brian Rowan, this clandestine enterprise involved Special Branch bugging, surveilling and breaking into premises and handling documents, in a period immediately preceding a series of PSNI raids and arrests. The climax of Operation Torsion was the forced entry of Parliament Buildings and the calculated destabilisation of the power sharing Executive. The scenes of a PSNI raiding party entering Sinn Féin's administrative offices in the Assembly were televised by a camera crew in a political charade which lent credibility to Special Branch's lurid fantasy of a 'Stormont spy ring'.

"That charade was criticised by many, including Irish Senator and leading proponent of the peace process, Dr Martin Mansergh, who characterised the Special Branch's Stormont raid as akin to the anti-democratic forces in Zimbabwe and Chile. This fraud was exposed when Special Branch returned all the property taken in the raid on the Sinn Féin offices.

"Around the same time, the new PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde made a qualified apology for the Special Branch's actions at Stormont. However, the malicious and sustained misinformation campaign driven from within the Special Branch continued. Journalists were briefed through politically motivated leaks, as highlighted by the Police Ombudsman.

"This same spurious defamatory and dangerous myth has engulfed our lives from the time our homes were forcibly entered before dawn on Friday 4 October 2002. Our homes were smashed into as we slept, we were placed under room arrest, our homes were ransacked, and our property and personal affects seized. Our loved ones were placed under arrest, detained for up to the maximum of seven days, charged and imprisoned.

"The Director for Public Prosecution has yet to decide whether there is any basis for the charges, which are strenuously contested by all defendants. We believe in the innocence of our loved ones. Their human rights and the rights of our families have been subverted and violated by those behind Operation Torsion.

"In the last year, as formal judicial proceedings have been pursued, the right to be presumed innocent and the right to advance a proper, effective legal defence has been relentlessly undermined. Their Special Branch accusers have yet to substantiate any of their widely publicised allegations with evidence. The inordinate delays in providing disclosure to defence solicitors has been repeatedly raised in court.

"Paradoxically, whilst the Special Branch have shown no compunction about leaking selective information to the media about Operation Torsion, they have so far refused to answer questions in court from defence solicitors about this subject.

"Complaints have been lodged by defence solicitors with the Police Ombudsman and remain to be pursued.

"The Special Branch commander who led Operation Torsion, and has since retired amidst a controversy over alleged misconduct and leaks to the media, has not been shy to reveal his motivation in prosecuting Operation Torsion.

"He has stated that his objective was to 'take skulls' in the expectation that the power sharing Executive would be endangered as a result. Whilst he was still a senior PSNI officer, that same former Special Branch commander made public his strident opposition to the Patten Report's reforms for policing.

"Our families are supporters of the peace process. Indeed, character references from many public figures have pointed to the effort and dedication some of our relatives have demonstrated in their own lives to the development and promotion of the peace process.

"We share the view of An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that the outworkings of Operation Torsion 'were open to suspicion'. To fully dispel those suspicions and to clear the name of our relatives, we are calling for the full truth about Operation Torsion to be disclosed and for formal judicial proceedings against our relatives to be thrown out."

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