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1 October 1998 Edition

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Congress reviews RUC abuses

By Greg O'Loughlin and Cari Zall
Washington, DC

The United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights held a roundtable discussion concerning the Report on the Mission of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, on Tuesday 29 September. Mr Param Cumaraswamy, the Special Rapporteur, submitted his report to the committee. Prior to this discussion, the subcommittee has held two hearings on the status of human rights in the north of Ireland, as well as a fact-finding peace mission to Belfast in August of 1997.

Congressman Chris Smith, the Chairman of the Subcommittee, was the first to speak, and displayed a great deal of insight into the topic. He stated that while there is hope for greater change for the freedom of solicitors in the Good Friday Agreement, ``the response thus far to the Rapporteur's report by the British Government is frankly disappointing.'' He commended Mr Cumaraswamy for such a well documented and detailed account of his findings, and then turned the floor over to him.

Mr Cumaraswamy testified that as early as 1992 his office began receiving reports of harassment and threats to defence lawyers in the north of Ireland. He said of the 1700 lawyers that make up the society, thirty have complained of harassment from the RUC. He observed that the thirty solicitors who did register complaints were treated like they were second class by the rest of the society, whereas in civil societies these solicitors who demonstrate such courage are supported in their actions.

He also received a number of reports indicating security forces involvement in Pat Finucane's murder. The report of his investigation last year focuses at length on the abuses of defence attorneys by the RUC, and makes specific recommendations on rectifying the situation. When the chief constable of the RUC was asked about complaints by lawyers of harassment, Mr. Cumaraswamy found total indifference on the part of Ronnie Flanagan.

As to the murder of Pat Finucane, Mr Cumaraswamy indicated that he had not asked for a new investigation into who murdered the well known attorney in 1989, but rather specifically asked for answers as to the government and security forces' involvement in the killing. The British government remains unwilling to set up an independent investigation into the matter.

The Chairman of the International Relations Committee (the committee that supervises the work of the Human Rights Subcommittee), Benjamin Gilman, a long time supporter of human rights in the north of Ireland, was also very involved in the discussions. Chairman Gilman stated that in light of Mr Cumaraswamy's report, ``the need for an acceptable policing force in the north of Ireland could not be clearer.''

Also on the panel were a number of special witnesses who were asked to attend in order to better inform the rest of the members. The main submission to the panel was given by Peter Madden, Pat Finucane's partner. Peter described the evidence of collusion in the Pat Finucane murder, as well as the effect this collusion has on the rest of society. Included in his evidence were threats made at Pat Finucane, coming from the RUC and British government minister Douglas Hogg.

Peter Madden, former law partner of Pat Finucane, related how Mr Finucane had been systematically threatened by the RUC and that three weeks before he was gunned down, British MP Douglas Hogg had stated that there were a number of solicitors who were unduly sympathetic to the IRA. ``Pat Finucane's family want to know what is the link between the RUC death threats, Hogg's statement, which he refused to elaborate upon,, and the true role of Brian Nelson. They also want to know how he could have been shot with a British army pistol.'' Threats to lawyers in the six counties continue to this day, Mr Madden reported.

The testimony of Rosemary Nelson, a solicitor who practices in Lurgan, made a particularly strong impression on the Committee Members. She gave a chilling account of her experiences of harassment by the RUC. She described death threats, verbal abuse, and even an account of physical abuse that she received while representing the Garvahy Road residents. She stated that ``although complaints against the RUC are supervised by the Independent Commission for Police Complaints, the complaints themselves are investigated by RUC officers.'' Chairman Gilman responded by saying that it sounded to him like ``sending a fox in to guard the chickens.''

Paul Mageean, from the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Belfast also gave his support for Mr Cumaraswamy's report, and called for the United States government to put pressure on the British government to not enforce the recently passed draconian emergency legislation.

Also in attendance were Martin Finucane, Pat Finucane's Brother, and Michael Finucane, Pat Finucane's son.

While in Washington, the witnesses at the hearing, as well as Martin Finucane of the Pat Finucane Centre, Michael Finucane and Jane Winters of British Irish Rights Watch, also met with members of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the Under Secretary of State for Human Rights, the National Security Council and other members of the international legal community. Miscarriage of justice cases were specifically addressed, and continued support for the UN Special Rapporteur's conclusions with regard to the RUC and intimidation of lawyers was gained during the meetings.
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