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3 December 2009 Edition

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Diplock convictions to be quashed

CONVICTIONS OVERTURNED: Charlie McMenamin and Danny Morrison

CONVICTIONS OVERTURNED: Charlie McMenamin and Danny Morrison

BY LAURA FRIEL

THE number of people challenging past convictions by Diplock courts continues to grow with the figure currently standing at around a hundred. Hundreds more ex-prisoners are expected to place their cases before the Review Commission.
Speaking at a press conference last Friday, Jim McVeigh of the ex-prisoners’ group, Coiste na n-Iarchimí appealed for other former political prisoners who feel they have been victims of a miscarriage of justice to come forward. McVeigh urged them to either contact Coiste or their own solicitors.
“Many hundreds of young men and women were sent to prison for long periods of time on the basis of statement evidence that was extracted either through torture or threats,” Jim said.
“Others were sent to prison on the basis of statement evidence alone that was simply fabricated by RUC detectives. Coiste na n-Iarchimí believes that we cannot ignore this legacy of the conflict.”
The press conference, held at Belfast’s Europa Hotel, followed a court hearing involving three Derry men. Eric Wright, Seamus Brown and Peter McDonald were all convicted in a Diplock court over 30 years ago and are set to have their past convictions quashed after the prosecution said it would no longer stand over them.
All three were convicted on the basis of uncorroborated confessions extracted during interrogations and signed in the absence of a solicitor. All three were under-age at the time and should not have been interviewed without legal representation or the presence of a parent or guardian. This was in direct breach of guidelines at the time.  
Commenting on the three men’s cases, Jim McVeigh said all three men have always protested their innocence and maintained the statements they made were made under duress following torture at the hands of the RUC interrogators at Strand Road Barracks.  
“The three – along with another person since deceased – were minors who were denied access to a solicitor, their parents or an appropriate adult during their interrogation,” said McVeigh.
“Following an investigation by the Criminal Case Review Commission, the RUC were found to have ignored guidelines relating to the questioning of minors. Last week, senior counsel representing the British told the Court of Appeal that they ‘do not seek to stand over the convictions’. In effect, this concedes the men’s case that they have been victims of a miscarriage of justice.”
A number of others who had recently had convictions overturned by the CCRC were also present, including Charles McMenamin, Terence Shields, Joe Fitzpatrick, John Boyle, Pascal Mulholland, Raymond McCartney, Billy Gorman and Danny Morrison.  
Jim McVeigh said that Cosite has been contacted by dozens of former political prisoners who have sought assistance in preparing applications for the CCRC, while dozens of others have approached their own solicitors.
“All of them have made allegations of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of RUC interrogators. Some have maintained that statements attributed to them had been fabricated. In other cases, vital evidence that would have proven them innocent was suppressed by the RUC.
“These cases are only the tip of the iceberg. We believe there is now clear evidence to show that there was widespread torture and abuse in places such as Castlereagh, Gough and Strand Road Barracks that spanned decades.”
Speaking in the Europa, fellow Derryman Charlie McMenamin, who recently had a conviction quashed in 2007, described his experience.
McMenamin was only 16 years of age when he was arrested and held in Strand Road Interrogation Centre. He was later convicted by a Diplock court on the basis of a statement he signed during interrogation. According to the Court of Appeal, confessions extracted from juveniles while unaccompanied should have been deemed inadmissible.
This landmark ruling could only take place after the procedure was changed in 1997.
Previously, a case could only be referred to the Court of Appeal with the approval of the British Home Secretary and, in the North of Ireland, the British Secretary of State. In 1997, the Criminal Cases Review Commission was established after a number of high-profile miscarriages of justice, including the Birmingham Six, heightened public concern.  
Many of those challenging their past conviction were under-age when they were detained. Many were subjected to brutal interrogations in places such as Castlereagh Interrogation Centre, Gough Barracks and Strand Road.
Non-jury Diplock courts were renowned for securing convictions outside accepted practices and standards of justice. In a Diplock court it was routine to convict on the basis of uncorroborated, unsafe and contested confessions.  
Many of those detained signed incriminating statements after being subjected to sustained mistreatment and sometimes torture. Others were convicted on the basis of falsified verbal statements concocted by one of their interrogators.  
In any other court, statements made by unaccompanied minors and any evidence of ill-treatment would have rendered it inadmissible but not in a Diplock court. The absence of a jury and the willingness of Diplock judges to convict on almost any basis processed thousands of people through a conveyor belt of injustice to jail.  
In a statement of support, Johnny Walker of the Birmingham Six voiced his support for other victims of miscarriages of justice. Walker said he had known some of those who were abused and coerced into signing statements when they were teenagers.
“These young boys were beaten, tortured, abused and put through a judicial nightmare and I would like to let them know that I am fully behind them.
“I would also support the call for a full independent inquiry into these types of cases. It is important that the full truth about how the RUC, Director of Public Prosecutions and the judiciary conspired and worked together.
“It is important that we uncover the truth about the miscarriages of justice and I want to pay tribute to those who have fought tirelessly to have their names cleared.
“Unlike the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, these men didn’t have an international campaign to support them. I would like to call on other people who have experienced a miscarriage of justice to come forward and expose the unjust system that was in place in the North for so long.”

PRESS CONFERENCE: (Back Row) Kevin Mulholand, Liam Coogan, Briege-Ann McCaughey, Pat Livingstone and Pascal Mulholland. (Front Row) Danny Morrison, Jim McVeigh, Raymond McCartney, Seamus Brown, Charlie McMenamin and Peter McDonald 

 

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