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22 August 2002 Edition

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Harassment of Felons set to continue

BY LAURA FRIEL


Last month, 13 members and staff of the Felon's Club in Andersonstown, West Belfast, thought they had, at last, a reason to celebrate after Judge Paul McRandall of Belfast's Magistrates Court ordered that cases against them should be dropped.

Under the European Convention of Human Rights, the Director of Public Prosecutions had delayed the court cases against them for such an unreasonable length of time the judge ruled he had no alternative but to strike out all the charges.

The defendants' ordeal began in 1997 and 1998, when they were charged with a number of minor offences but instead of being brought swiftly to court the cases dragged on. Within the last five years, the four women and nine men have been forced to attend over 50 court appearances.

The judge dismissed a claim by the prosecution that the delay was a result of the 'vast' and 'complex' nature of the investigation on the grounds that such a claim did not tally with the minor charges (relating to alleged VAT irregularities) faced by the defendants.

There was "no such complexity about the charges preferred against the defendants", the judge had said while pointing out that the RUC/PSNI had failed to invoke the only mechanism available that could have allowed the cases to continue despite the delay.

But despite the recent judgement, the PSNI and DPP appear determined to pursue the cases against the accused. A decision to appeal the judgement was earlier this month announced by the DPP. The prosecution is challenging Judge McRandall's ruling on a point of law, as yet untested in the courts.

In what will be a test case in Belfast's High Court, Judge McRandall will be asked to reconsider his judgement to stay the prosecution against one of the accused on the grounds that there had been an unreasonable delay amounting to a breach of the defendant's right to a fair trial as defined by the European Court.

But for the staff at the Felons, the story of their five-year ordeal is less to do with the necessities of European as opposed to British law and more to do with state harassment of an openly Republican Club.

"The campaign, which began with the RUC and is now being pursued by the PSNI, bears all the hallmarks of a vendetta against the club," said chairperson Liam Shannon.

"It is the view of the club and its legal advisors that the strategy employed by the RUC/PSNI was to attempt to secure a series of minor convictions against members and employees of the club," said Liam.

"The object of this was to undermine the club's credibility so that renewal of its liquor licence could be successfully challenged and as a result the club would be forced to close."

The DPPs determination to pursue the cases, which could be regarded as vindictive in itself, was compounded by a statement released by the prosecution which alleged that the investigation was part of a continuing probe into IRA funding by the Felons Club.

"Such an allegation not only bears no relationship to the nature of the charges faced by the defendants," said Liam Shannon, "it also knowingly puts the lives of our members and employees at risk."
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