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18 October 2001 Edition

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Finucane murder weapon revelation

BY LAURA FRIEL


The weapon used to kill Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane has been handed over to the British Army and 'reconditioned', effectively destroying the possibility of further forensic testing despite the ongoing nature of the investigation.

The weapon, a Browning 9mm pistol, was supposed to remain in the custody of the Northern Ireland Forensic Laboratory, but documents leaked to the media show that it was handed over to the British Army on 3 October 1995.

Worse still, the British Army failed to preserve the weapon, a key exhibit in an ongoing probe into one of the most controversial killings in the North. Significantly, the barrel and the slide of the pistol were subsequently replaced, despite the fact that earlier examination of the weapon had found it to be in full working order.

As specific as a fingerprint, once a bullet has been fired, markings corresponding to grooves within the barrel and the extractor on the slide can trace the specific gun used in the shooting.

A senior source within the Stevens Inquiry team has described the destruction of the evidence as either "utter incompetence" or "organised mischief". Head of the Stevens team, Chief Commander Hugh Orde, responded to the revelation by ordering an investigation which he said, if necessary, would be forwarded to the DPP.

To date the British Army and RUC have refused to identify where the order to remove the weapon came from. A British Army investigation carried out by a major in the British Counter Intelligence G2 department last month claimed that the British Army had not made "any special agreement" in relation to this particular weapon.

"Weapons released from the laboratory are accepted as no longer being required for investigation purposes," said the report.

The Browning 9mm pistol was one of 12 weapons 'stolen' from the British Army's Palace barracks in August 1987. A UDR soldier, Steven Fletcher, was later arrested in the 26 Counties and found to be in possession of another handgun 'missing' from the Palace Barracks armoury.

The UDR soldier was jailed for five years in April 1988. During the trial, Fletcher claimed he had sold the guns to members of the UDA at a drinking club in the loyalist Shankill area of West Belfast.

The pistol used in the Finucane killing has also been linked to the attempted killing of a Catholic in Carlisle Square in September 1988.

Pat Finucane was shot dead as he sat down to dinner with his family on 12 February 1989, when loyalist gunmen burst into their North Belfast home.

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