16 October 2008 Edition

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Northern Bank case collapses

By Laura Friel

SINN FÉIN Policing Board member Alex Maskey has described the attempted prosecution of Chris Ward as being “driven by political considerations rather than justice”.
“It seems the evidence against Chris Ward consisted of the fact that he was a Catholic living in West Belfast,” said Maskey.
Chris Ward, who was the only person to be charged in relation to the 2004 Northern Bank robbery, walked free from a Belfast court last week after the prosecution case collapsed.
Commenting, Maskey said it was clear that the prosecution had not been based upon evidence but motivated by the desire to “prove a political theory about who was responsible for the robbery” rather than “finding those who actually were”.
The South Belfast MLA said the case emphasised the need for the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Assembly.
“It exposes the fact that we should have democratic local accountability over policing and all aspects of the criminal justice system, which came together to drive forward this bogus prosecution,” said Maskey.
“The transfer of these matters will mean proper scrutiny of the workings of these institutions and individuals, ensuring, in future, prosecutions take place on the basis of evidence and not because of the needs of any particular political agenda.”
With almost 30 million pounds taken from a Belfast branch of the Northern Bank, it was reported as the biggest robbery in British and Irish history and within days PSNI Chief Hugh Orde blamed the IRA.
Orde made his allegation as it emerged that the PSNI had been alerted to suspicious activity outside the bank but after a cursory glance outside, his officers had taken no action.
It may have been just a convenient distraction to PSNI failings but Orde had already demonstrated a propensity to interference in the political process.
In the event the only person to stand trial was one of two bank employees whose families had been held hostage by the gang. Despite elaborate eavesdropping and surveillance operations by the PSNI, desperate to incriminate Ward the prosecution’s case rested on the flimsiest of circumstantial speculation which could never have stood up against trial scrutiny.
Speaking outside the court, defence lawyer Niall Murphy said from the outset Chris Ward was denied the presumption of innocence.
“This Kafkaesque farce started from the premise that Chris Ward was guilty and worked backwards, rather than commencing with the evidence and working forwards,” said Murphy.
“It is a regrettable fact that in this society, the mere fact that Chris Ward is a Catholic from Poleglass and charged with this offence, was enough to seal his guilt in the eyes of some people,” said the solicitor.
“Millions of pounds have been spent in the pursuit of this man, who in turn was caught up in a case that attracted international political condemnation for reasons other than the robbery of a bank,” said Murphy.
Highlighting a series of flawed prosecutions, the lawyer said his client had been rescued from the appalling vista of a miscarriage of justice but there was no guarantee that this would prevail on every occasion.
“There must be a root and branch analysis of how high profile criminal cases are prosecuted in this jurisdiction. The PSNI investigation into this case, possibly the largest ever in the UK, was not conditioned by the evidence, but was inspired by political motives,” said Murphy.

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