20 November 2003 Edition
Courts offer loyalists a revolving door
Despite being caught with a handgun jammed into his sock at the height of the most recent unionist paramilitary feud, UDA leader Andre Shoukri has won his appeal against a six-year jail sentence.
In yet another example of the bizarre double standards that remain firmly rooted within the echelons of the judiciary, the North Belfast UDA man was cleared of the charge of possessing a Walther pistol and 30 rounds of ammunition in suspicious circumstances, even though he has previous convictions for extortion and unlawful and malicious wounding.
Shoukri was found with the firearm as he sat in a car in the unionist Rathcoole Estate in September 2002. Forensic tests later revealed the weapon had been used in three previous UDA attacks. At the time of his arrest, he denied possessing the gun, but later changed his statement, claiming he had obtained the weapon after being warned that Johnny Adair intended to kill him.
In court at that time to hear that assertion was Adair himself, who was sitting happily alongside Shoukri's brother Ihab. The two were later pictured leaving the building together, despite the apparent death threat.
In July of this year, Shoukri was convicted of possession of a firearm but cleared on a charge of intent to endanger life, which could have carried a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
Delivering the judgement, Judge McCollum said that while he was convinced there was a threat to Shoukri's life, he was also "of the opinion that Mr Shoukri's bearing and demeanour is not that of a passive victim who would only be prepared to use such a weapon in self-defence".
On appeal, Shoukri's solicitor argued that no offence was committed if an accused could establish that he had a weapon for a reasonable object — to protect his life. Therefore, he said, Shoukri's conviction was perverse because it was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which guaranteed a presumption of innocence.
Crown barrister John Creaney refuted this line of reasoning, saying that, based on Shoukri's own evidence during cross-examination, the Crown had proved beyond reasonable doubt that he had not been in possession of the weapon for a lawful object.
However, this past week Shoukri's conviction was overturned, with Appeal Court judges reserving their decision on a plea to reduce his concurrent two-year sentence for the much lesser charge of having a gun without a fireams certificate.
This is not the first time a known unionist paramilitary has walked away from serving jail time after being found with a weapon.
Earlier this year, notorious loyalist Darren Watson walked out of court a free man even though he too had been found guilty of posessing a weapon.
Watson had been serving a five-year sentence for his part in a UDA punishment beating in 1998. He had been out of jail on licence for less than two months when PSNI officers rammed his car in Ballynahinch last year and apprehended him at gunpoint for refusing to stop when challenged. He was arrested after it was discovered he had a Smith and Wesson revolver wrapped in a sock in his pocket.
The County Down loyalist claimed he was carrying the weapon for his own protection after being informed by the PSNI that his life had been threatened by the IRA.
Regardless of the fact that he had pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon in suspicious circumstances and had previous convictions for assault, criminal damage, grievous bodily harm, riotous behavior, indecency, burglary and theft, Watson was given a conditional discharge on 6 March 2003 and released.
Less than a month after Watson's arrest, LVF man William James Fulton — brother of infamous LVF leader, Mark "Swinger" Fulton — had his bail conditions relaxed so that he could attend a 12 July march in Portadown. This was despite of the fact that Fulton was facing 64 serious charges at the time, including attempted murder and directing the activities of the LVF.
He had been arrested in England by detectives investigating the 1999 murder of Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson and stood accused of a number of other killings, possession of guns and explosives, and supplying both Class A and B drugs.
In December 2000, yet another unionist paramilitary, Thomas Potts, appeared in court on attempted murder charges after a UDA attack on rival loyalists at the Rex bar in the Shankill.
Potts was told by the trial judge that he "might" get bail if there was a public statement issued that the UDA/UVF feud was over. Even though no statement was forthcoming, he was released anyway, only to be re-arrested two years later for trying to extort money on behalf of the UDA.
This past June, Potts was jailed for four years for the attack on the Rex bar, but because his parole licence had expired 12 days before the attack, the court ruled that he did not have to serve the remaining eight years of a 16-year sentence he had received in 1993 for conspiracy to murder.
Potts is currently awaiting trial on the extortion charges.
Victims group Relatives for Justice is seeking a meeting with the Dublin Government amid growing alarm that unionist paramilitaries are being treated leniently by the courts.
The group, which represents more than 400 families whose loved ones have been killed by loyalists and state forces over the last four decades, also plans to submit a dossier to the UN Special Rapporteur detailing a number of cases where unionist paramilitaries received lenient sentences, despite being charged with serious offences.
As he was led from the court this week, a pleased Andre Shoukri told reporters, "justice has been done", adding that he hoped to be free "in a few weeks".