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26 April 2007 Edition

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Plastic Bullet death 'unjustifiable'

Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan

Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan

BY LAURA FRIEL

An investigation conducted on behalf of the victim’s family by Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan has described the killing of 15-year-old Paul Whitters in April 1981 as “unjustifiable”. The report found the teenage victim had been shot at close range, posed no serious threat and could have been arrested.
“In my view the firing of the baton gun on that occasion was wrong and unjustifiable. The gun was used in contravention of the rules in place at the time. No warning was given by the loudhailer and it was fired at less than the permissible range of 20 metres,” said O’Loan.
The ombudsman also criticised the lack of co-operation by former RUC officers involved in the incident but now retired. The ombudsman does not have legal powers to compel former as opposed to serving officers in the RUC and PSNI to give evidence.
The officer who fired the gun refused to speak to O’Loan’s team, while most of the others involved either refused to speak or said they had nothing to add to the four-year investigation.
Paul Whitters, from the Bogside, died ten days after he was struck on the head by a plastic bullet fired by an RUC officer close to Derry City cemetery. Subsequent claims of a disturbance involving a gang of youths were disputed by an eye witness who said the teenager had been virtually on his own in the street and could have been arrested.
The report also criticised the investigation of the death carried out by the RUC at the time. According to the Whitters family no proper investigation was carried out. The RUC made no attempt to interview civilians and didn’t even approach the family until eight months after Paul’s death.
The inspector who interviewed the officer responsible for the killing failed to read any civilian eye-witness accounts before the interview. Contradictions in the RUC evidence were therefore left unchallenged.
Speaking after publication of the report, sister of the victim, Emma Whitters said that in the light of the findings, the decision of the then Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute the officer concerned was questionable.
“Our family did not embark on this process in the belief that it would result in a prosecution but after so many years we have come to question the separation of law and state when it comes to state violence. The lack of prosecutions regarding deaths from plastic bullets reinforces these misgivings,” said Emma.
Meanwhile the family of another young plastic bullet victim, 11-year-old Stephen McConomy, also from Derry have requested a re-examination of the case. A British soldier shot the child at close range in the back of the head as he was walking away from a British army Saracen. The boy died three days later on April 19 1982.
Stephen was killed by a British soldier, so the incident cannot be investigated by the ombudsman whose jurisdiction only extends to the RUC and PSNI. The McConomy family are compelled to pursue their quest for truth and justice through the PSNI’s Historical Inquiries Team.
Commenting on the Whitters report, Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney said the ombudsman’s findings vindicated the family and campaigning groups who stated that Paul posed no threat and should never have been shot.

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