02 January 2006

Big changes in NI terror bill to buy off opposition

Sunday Times

**Via Newshound

Liam Clarke
January 01, 2006
The Sunday Times

THE British government is preparing to ditch key provisions of the legislation that grants a virtual amnesty for “on-the-run” terrorists and members of the security forces who committed offences during the Troubles. Later this month it will scrap or amend large parts of the Northern Ireland Offences Bill in an effort to buy off widespread political opposition.

All the parties in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein, as well as the police, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and victims groups, oppose the bill in its current format. It has also attracted criticism from all the opposition parties in British parliament and a number of influential Labour backbenchers including Paul Murphy, former secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

As the bill stands, anyone who committed a scheduled offence before the Good Friday agreement can apply to be dealt with by a special tribunal. They need not appear or answer any questions, but are entitled to legal representation and, if convicted, to be immediately released on licence.

When the bill enters the report stage in the House of Commons towards the end of this month, the government will agree to opposition demands on a time limit for the bill. This means that offenders can take advantage of it only if they apply before a certain date.

If they are caught after that, or of they omit to mention some offences, they may serve up to two years in jail under the early release provisions of the Good Friday agreement.

The government will also specify that those applying for inclusion must appear at the special tribunal and answer questions under the same rules as in a crown court.

Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the DUP and a strong opponent of the bill, said: “We have also been assured that there will be no limitation on civil proceedings and evidence gathered can be used in civil proceedings in the same way as it is in the crown court.”

This means that if evidence emerges at the special tribunals it can be used by victims to take action for damages against offenders, in the same way as some of those bereaved by the Real IRA bombing at Omagh are suing those they believe to be responsible.

Robinson is confident that the government will accept an amendment that would specify that anyone guilty of torture would not benefit.

“This is likely to be accepted because the European human rights convention and the United Nations convention against torture require the government to impose the appropriate penalty against anyone responsible for torture,” he said.

While Sinn Fein initially supported the legislation, it did a U-turn on the issue following pressure from victims of state violence. The bill extends its provisions to members of the security forces found guilty of collusion with loyalists, murder or other Troubles-related offences.

This is particularly relevant with the finding of the Bloody Sunday tribunal due out by Easter. It may find members of the British Army responsible for murder or manslaughter.

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