3 April 1997 Edition
Sixty six POWs assaulted
SIXTY SIX REPUBLICAN POWs were beaten by screws in follow-up searches in the H-Blocks after the discovery of an escape plan on Sunday 23 March when the tunnel being dug out of H7 collapsed.
And now the prisoners fear they may suffer long term injury after riot squads moved in to the republican wings to carry out strip searches. Of those injured Dominic Nichol has a dislocated shoulder and head injuries. Jim Smyth and Joe Doherty, who were extradited from the USA, were both beaten in searches following the discovery of the tunnel in H7. Jim Smyth suffered a badly injured wrist. Most others suffered severe wrist injuries when their arms were twisted and forced up their backs. It is believed that the assaults were captured on video security cameras.
According to a statement sent from the Blocks by the POWs, prisoners' representatives told the jail administration that POWs would comply with searches being carried out and reminded them that the tunnel operation had ``involved no use of force against prison warders and prisoners would not tolerate retaliatory force or ill-treatment''.
Despite assurances given by prison authorities that any search procedure would not be an excuse for violence, riot squads moved into the Blocks holding republicans and demanded that the prisoners comply with a full strip-search.
The prisoners statement went on to accuse ``elements among the Prison Officers Association (POA) and prison administration of orchestrating events during the search and transfer operation of POWs to contrive a situation which would allow for the deployment of riot squads against individual prisoners''.
Initially eight prisoners were singled out for attack and were shackled, dragged from their cells, forcibly stripped, hand-cuffed and frog-marched by fully equipped riot squads to H8. Each of these assaults took place while prison governors and a prison doctor looked on.
For almost a week after the tunnel was found republican prisoners had their visits and telephone contact stopped and as no news emerged from the jail the families of prisoners became increasingly worried.
One woman, Colette Devine, whose partner Fra Maher is serving 25 years, told An Phoblacht that the first news she had of Fra was a card she received on Thursday. In the card Fra described how the riot squad came to his H 5 cell and forced him to the ground with their shields, despite him offering no resistance.
``I was sitting on the floor,'' wrote Maher, ``when they came in and forced me down. They screwed my arms up my back, and pushed my head between my legs and dragged me out onto the landing where they put me face down on the floor and stripped me naked.''
``I've never been so humiliated in my whole life because there were women screws there,'' added Maher.
Other relatives who contacted An Phoblacht expressed their disgust at the attitude of the prison authorities who dismissed their requests for information. ``They were cheeky and dismissive,'' said one woman while another said she was told, ``there would be no visits until cavity searches were carried out.''
``Given that there was no contact with the prisoners this attitude only added to the families' worries,'' said a spokesperson for the Sinn Fein POW Depatment.
Another cause of concern was the confiscation of photographs and other personal items which prisoners fear may end up in the hands of loyalists.
The POWs in their statement stated:
``On Sunday 23 March as a result of a serious collapse in a tunnel from H Block 7 an ongoing escape operation from the H Blocks was aborted. The tunnel had breached the perimeter of the block and the collapse occurred at the tunnel face. The resulting hole which occurred in an area monitored by patrolling screws and armed British soldiers in observation towers, remained undetected for several hours and was eventually discovered at approximately 9.30pm.''
A beating described
Republican prisoner Robert Crawford on the aftermath of the tunnel discovery in Long Kesh
After the tunnel had been caught we knew what to expect from the screws. In September 1983 screws went on the rampage after the escape and dozens of prisoners had been badly beaten. However, over the years they have polished up their act a little. They usually contrive some sort of reason to deploy the riot squad when they want to try and come the heavy-hand.
From the minute the search began it became clear they had singled out a number of us for some sort of `special treatment'. They accused us of not complying with the search procedure and pulled back out of our cells. They gave everyone else the usual strip search and moved them out to H8.
The agreed search procedure that had been in place for quite some time was that we take off our tops, put them back on, take off our jeans and `shake-out' our underwear. Anything beyond this is unnecessary for search purposes and it has no purpose other than to attack a person's dignity. We were aware before the lock-down that a jail governor had assured our O/C that the usual search procedure would be followed.
Three screws came into my cell and demanded I remove all my clothes. They said they wanted ``everything off''. I told them they could do the usual search but there was no way I would be removing my underpants. At that they left the cell.
Then the screw in charge of the search team came in and told me if I didn't comply I would be charged with ``disobeying orders''. The same happened in seven other cells. A governor called Smith told one of the other lads that everyone who had been moved had complied with their demand. We knew this was a lie. In fact the governor's parting words as he left the wing to order in the riot squad was ``We'll sort this out in a few minutes.''
When the riot squad came in they hit each cell in turn. I was in the last cell to be done. The sound of them rushing into the other cells one at a time was a bit unnerving but nothing I wasn't prepared for. They came in wearing helmets with visors, padded clothes and carrying riot shields. There were three of them and they stormed in aggressively. They grabbed my arms and forced me to the floor. One of the others came in front of me and pushed my head to the floor. My arms were forced up my back in an armlock. Despite the fact that I could barely move they continued to apply pressure to my arms and wrists. They stripped off my clothes, everything except my top. They didn't remove the top because to remove it they would have had to release the armlocks. I could hear some of them laughing and joking about what they were doing.
Then they cuffed my hands behind my back, lifted me up and frog-marched me down the wing and out to the circle. I couldn't see anyone because my head was held down. Some of them were taunting and laughing as I was dragged through the circle. I was lifted into the van and driven to H8.
In H8 they followed the same procedure in taking me from the van and dragging me to the cell. As I was being dragged down the wing the lads were all screaming at the riot squad. The noise of my mates didn't ease the pain of the armlock any but it sure cheered me up.
They put me face down in the cell and took off the handcuffs. Two of them took my ankles and twisted my legs towards my waist. The screw holding my face to the floor released his grip and left the cell. They increased the pressure on my legs, I felt a surge of pain and thought something was going to snap. The two holding my legs let go their grip and rushed back out of the cell and slammed the door. It was a few seconds before I could straighten my legs and get to my feet. They injured my right shoulder and lower back and my joints.