15 December 2005

NIO 'could change fugitive law'


The government is considering changes to its controversial paramilitary 'on-the-runs' legislation, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson has said.

They are reassessing the clause absolving applicants from appearing in person before a tribunal, said the MP.

NIO Justice Minister David Hanson said the government was reflecting on the strength of opposition to the move.

However, government sources told the BBC he was not committed to changing the original legislation.

The plan covers up to 150 people wanted for crimes in Northern Ireland committed before 1998.

Mr Robinson said the government was facing an uphill struggle to get the legislation passed into law.

"Even if they were to change this, it doesn't make the Bill acceptable - it just makes it less unacceptable," he told BBC News on Thursday.

"Change is going to be necessary to get it through the House of Lords.

"I think they are now reckoning that there are some elements of it where change is going to be necessary to get it through the Commons, where they have a massive majority."

In the Commons, Mr Hanson asked Mr Robinson to withdraw a DUP amendment and the government would then consider bringing its own amendment on the issue at the report stage of the Bill.

Mr Robinson said non-appearance of the accused was "contrary to natural justice" and a further insult to victims and their families.

Without an accused in court, the trial would be "a massive farce and fraud", he said.

Several Labour back-bench members also indicated they believed the government should revise its position on the issue.

The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UUP MP Lady Hermon also supported the DUP amendment.


Meanwhile, Alliance leader David Ford said: "One of the central reasons for our opposition to the legislation has been that the beneficiaries would not have to face the court in person.

"If the government is considering addressing this issue, then that is a small step in the right direction," he said.

Those covered under the legislation would have their cases heard by a special tribunal, and if found guilty, would be freed on licence without having to go to jail.

The government and Sinn Fein argue that it clears up "an anomaly" left by the release of those already in jail after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The proposed law would set up a two-stage process. First a "certification officer" would decide if someone was eligible for the scheme.

Mr Robinson said government was facing an uphill struggle

This could be a paramilitary on-the-run, someone living in Northern Ireland who is charged with an offence before 1998 or a member of the security forces accused of an offence committed when they were combating terrorism.

The case would then go to a special tribunal, consisting of a retired judge sitting without a jury. The tribunal would have all the normal powers of the Crown Court but the accused would not have to appear for their trial.

If found guilty they would have a criminal record but would be freed on licence. They would have to provide fingerprints and DNA samples to be granted their licence.

The scheme will be temporary but a precise cut-off period is not specified in the bill - instead its expiry is linked to the lifetime of the chief constable's historic cases review team, which is looking at unsolved murders during the Troubles.

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