30 March 2006

Family welcomes tough penalties for witnesses refusing to aid Hamill probe

Belfast Telegraph

By Chris Thornton
30 March 2006

The family of murder victim Robert Hamill have welcomed tougher penalties for witnesses who refuse to co-operate with the inquiry into his killing.

But they have indicated they have reservations about secrecy clauses that will accompany the new legal move.

Secretary of State Peter Hain announced yesterday that he has agreed to hold the inquiry into the Portadown man's murder under the controversial Inquiries Act.

The inquiry will examine allegations that police officers failed to intervene when Mr Hamill and his companions were attacked by a loyalist mob in the Co Armagh town in April, 1997. Mr Hamill, a father of three, died 11 days later without regaining consciousness.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed last month that Mr Hain was preparing to make the change at the request of Inquiry chairman Sir Edwin Jowitt.

The switch to the Inquiries Act means witnesses can be hit with jail terms and fines if they do not give evidence about the killing. Some witnesses are believed to have refused to co-operate with the inquiry team's advance work.

The switch also gives Mr Hain power to withhold material on the grounds of national security. Those powers have been opposed by other families.

The family of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane have lobbied judges to turn down the chairmanship of the proposed inquiry into his murder because of the secrecy powers.

And the father of murdered LVF leader Billy Wright is making a court challenge against the use of the Inquiries Act in his son's inquiry. The case is due to be heard next month.

According to Barra McGrory, the legal representative of the Hamills, Mr Hain has indicated he will not use the secrecy powers because national security issues are not linked to the murder.

"This was not unexpected as we had previously received notification from the Secretary of State that he was willing to grant the application to convert," Mr McGrory said.

"We note the Secretary of State's indication that he has no present intention to issue any restriction notices.

"We remain concerned that this may be a problem in the future but at the same time we welcome the additional powers which we hope will be used indiscriminately against those witnesses who have so far failed to comply."

Six men were originally charged with Mr Hamill's murder, but those charges were later dropped.

One of the men, Marc Hobson of Deer Park, Portadown, was convicted of affray related to the attack and spent two years in prison.

After an investigation by Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, a police reservist who was in a Land Rover near the attack was accused of attempting to pervert the course of justice by warning a suspect to destroy clothes.

Former officer Robert Atkinson consistently denied making any such warning and he was cleared when the case against him collapsed.

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