16 November 2000 Edition

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Gagging orders breach Human Rights Act

Gagging orders imposed by the courts at the behest of the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) may breach the concept of `open justice' enshrined in the recently enacted laws of Human Rights.

In a determined effort to stop details of Britain's covert war in Ireland becoming a matter of public record, the British government has been obtaining court injunctions against whistleblowers by evoking laws of confidence rather than the Official Secrets Act.

Where disclosure is clearly a matter of public interest, the British government has been reluctant to evoke Offical Secrets legislation and risk rejection by a jury. By evoking civil law, the MoD has been able to impose gagging orders on the grounds of national security.

Many of the legal proceedures used to impose press censorship are themselves subject to injunction, banning the newspapers and journalists affected from even challenging the mechanisms of the gagging order in public.

A year ago, such an injunction was used by the British Secretary of Defence, Geoff Hoon against the Sunday Times, banning the newspaper from publishing revelations by a former operative from one of the British Army's most secret units, the Force Research Unit.

The FRU operative, known only as Martin Ingram, claimed that a specialist British Army unit, trained in covert entry, set fire to offices used by the Stevens team in an attempt to sabotage the case against Brian Nelson, an undercover FRU agent in the UDA.

In January 1990, the `entry' team was flown from its headquaters at Ashford, Kent. Vital records belonging to the Stevens team were destroyed in the fire, which gutted offices at an RUC barracks in Carrickfergus.

The injunction imposed on the Sunday Times has prevented more details of the sabotage operation being published. Initally, even reporting the fact that restrictions had been imposed was banned.

After a sucessful legal challenge, the conditions were partially relaxed but restrictions still remain preventing the newspaper from pubishing key aspects of the injunction.

Meanwhile, the senior British Army officer and former member of the FRU at the centre of some of the most controversial killings in the North has been questioned by the Stevens team. The female officer met the Stevens detectives voluntarily but according to media reports still faces arrest.

The woman FRU operative and two other former members, one a serving brigadier, are expected to be arrested within days and questioned about the sectarian killing of a West Belfast pensioner, Francisco Notorantonio. The 66-year-old grandfather was shot dead when a masked gang smashed their way into his Ballymurphy home and shot him as he lay in bed with his wife.

According to recent reports, the loyalist gang that carried out the killing had been supplied with intelligence by FRU agent Brian Nelson. Nelson's handler, a female FRU officer, deliberately passed fake intelligence identifying Notorantonio as a ``top Provo''.

The family always suspected Crown force collusion in the killing. One of the gunmen was wearing British Army issue boots and a British Army map was discovered in the house after the shooting.

In his prison journal, Brian Nelson tells of a party held in the home of Tommy Little, then the West Belfast UDA leader, the day after the Notorantonio shooting. At the party the UDA death squad celebrated the killing of an ``IRA leader''.

An Phoblacht
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