Judge brands Ministry of Defence’s explanation for its failure to track down ex-servicemen ‘a load of nonsense’
Ministry of Defence explanations for failing to track down two ex-servicemen in a civil action over alleged torture techniques used by soldiers in Northern Ireland are “an absolute load of nonsense”, a High Court judge declared on Wednesday.
Mr Justice McAlinden said it was an “insult” to claim the key witnesses’ current whereabouts have yet to be established because files were inaccessible during the pandemic.
The blistering assessment came as a lawsuit brought by the last man in Northern Ireland to be handed the death penalty was put back to next year.
Liam Holden (68) was sentenced to hang for the killing of a British soldier in west Belfast in 1972.
The death penalty was commuted to life in prison before a 40-year fight to clear his name resulted in his murder conviction being quashed in 2012.
Mr Holden, a widowed father-of-two, maintains that the military subjected him to deep interrogation methods, including waterboarding and death threats, in order to extract a false confession for the shooting of Private Frank Bell.
He is now seeking damages from the MoD for alleged torture and misconduct in public office.
A nine-day civil trial was scheduled to begin next week at the High Court in Belfast.
But counsel for the MoD applied for an adjournment on Wednesday as efforts continue to locate two soldiers who were allegedly directly involved in events at the time.
Citing administrative problems due to the pandemic, he said the pair have to be traced before it can be established if they are willing to cooperate.
“The tracking down of witnesses from 50 years ago has proved to be even more difficult than it ordinarily would be,” he said.
Mr Holden’s barrister, Brian Fee QC, argued that allegations his client was subjected to waterboarding techniques have been known for years.
Opposing the bid to put the case back, he claimed the defendant had behaved “very poorly”.
Backing that assessment, Mr Justice McAlinden said: “I don’t accept for one minute, and I think it’s actually insulting to the court, for a party with the resources of the MoD to come up with what I regard as an absolute load of nonsense in relation to not being able to access a file during Covid.
“It’s as if the MoD building in London or wherever it is was basically shut down during Covid and nobody was in the building.”
Stressing the trial date was set last September, the judge was equally critical about the difficulties being raised a week before the hearing.
He labelled the MoD’s reasons for seeking to put the case back as “very poor and shoddy”, with “the most flimsy of excuses” for why the inquiries were not carried out sooner.
“It shows a lack of integrity on the part of those involved in that organisation in relation to the conduct of this litigation,” he said.
“I put those terms in a measured, but forceful form to ensure the message gets out that this type of behaviour on the part of a government organisation will not be tolerated.”
But describing the court as “hamstrung”, he reluctantly granted the adjournment application to ensure justice is done.
With the case re-listed for January next year, the judge imposed a four-week deadline for tracking down the ex-soldiers.
He told counsel: “You have 28 days to locate the two witnesses that your client intends to approach about this matter and to confirm availability.”
26th May 2021