On Friday the 20th October 2017 the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) complied with a Discovery Order from Belfast High Court to release secret papers relied upon to quash the convictions of the last man in Northern Ireland to receive the death penalty in 1973.
Liam Holden was arrested at the age of 18 on the 16th October 1972. He was detained by members of the Parachute Regiment at Blackmountain Barracks in Belfast for almost 7 hours. While in military custody he was subjected to physical ill treatment, hooding, threats to kill at gunpoint and water boarding. The torture techniques were used to coerce a short false confession to the murder of a soldier. Private Frank Bell, a member of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, was shot while on foot patrol in Springhill Avenue on the 17th September 1972, one month before Liam Holden was arrested.
Mr Holden was prosecuted for the murder solely on the basis of the one paragraph false confession. He challenged the evidence at trial 6 months later, gave evidence in his own defence alleging the torture and called alibi witnesses. He was convicted by a jury after a 4 day trial at Crumlin Road Courthouse in April 1973. The judge imposed the death penalty. He spent 4 weeks under 24 hour watch in the Condemned Man cell in Crumlin Road jail until the death penalty was commuted to a life sentence in May 1973. He served 17 years in custody and was subject to licence restrictions for 23 years. He is now pursuing the Ministry of Defence and PSNI for civil proceedings in relation to the events which overshadowed 45 years of his adult life.
The CCRC referred the unsafe convictions back to the NI Court of Criminal Appeal in 2009, on the basis of new evidence. The Court of Appeal quashed the convictions on the 21st June 2012. The secret papers which the CCRC relied upon in 2009 have now been obtained by Mr Holden’s legal team as discovery in the civil proceedings.
Those papers include the minutes of a high level political meeting which took place on the 25th July 1972 involving the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, Michael Carver, the Chief of General Staff of the Army and the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, Peter Rawlinson. Paragraph 2 of that document states that;
“CGS said that the Army entirely understood the distinction between having evidence against a person which would lead to his conviction, and not having sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction but nonetheless holding him under the Special Powers Act by either detaining or interning him. From a military operational standpoint the distinction was not significant; if the Army knew someone to be a terrorist, they wanted to either shot him or arrest him, and if they arrested him they wanted to put him away. But the Secretary of State would not revert to internment. “
Paragraph 9 of the same document refers to the RUC and interrogation and states;
“The Secretary of State raised the question of the RUC, Special Branch. DCC Flanaghan has said that its members would not interrogate in future under Reg 10 of the SPA even with the new rules unless there were indemnified in advance, since they were liable to be sued and could not – or were unwilling to – defend themselves in open court.”
Another freshly disclosed document sets out the tension between the Army and the RUC. It reveals concern on behalf of the Army about the ability of the RUC to obtain the evidence required to ensure that suspects were convicted or “locked up”.
The document, dated the 30th August 1972, is a report on intelligence matters to the army Chief of General Staff Michael Craver. It sets out the fact that intelligence information has reduced and that the RUC,
“As a result of their experience with Pos over the past month, and the shadow of Strasbourg which they feel hanging over them, the Special Branch spirit and confidence in interrogation is still limited and the Army is conscious of this.”
The same document goes on to describe this state of affairs within the RUC as a “generally gloomy picture.”
The documents relate to the period of time after the claim by the Irish Government against the British Government before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg regarding the RUC and Army torture and ill treatment of the Hooded Men in August 1971 using what are known as the 5 techniques. The 5 techniques included hooding, prolonged stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and drink. The army Chief of General Staff in 1972, Michael Carver, had previously been responsible for the organisation of the administration of British forces deployed in response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. Recent litigation against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) by victims of the colonial era torture in Kenya settled. The British Government issued a formal apology, paid 19.9 million in compensation and agreed to build a memorial to the victims in Kenya. Other fresh claims are currently before the courts.
Patricia Coyle, of Harte Coyle Collins, Solicitors & Advocates, acting for Mr Holden said today;
“The freshly released documents obtained via a Belfast High Court Order compelling discovery, show the extent of the misconduct in public office in our client’s case. They demonstrate that from May 1972 the military was well aware of the restrictions on their powers to arrest and interrogate citizens in Northern Ireland. Yet despite this, they flagrantly breached the law in this case in order to secure a false confession. The minutes of the political meeting from July 1972, which state that the army wanted to either shoot or arrest suspects, and if they arrested them they wanted to lock them up, was played out in our client’s, and other, cases. Our client will continue to pursue the MOD and PSNI for accountability for their actions within his lifetime.”
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