29 March 2006

Fines or jail face refusing inquiry witnesses

Belfast Telegraph

By Chris Thornton
29 March 2006

Witnesses to the murder of Portadown man Robert Hamill who refuse to cooperate with the inquiry into his death faced increased fines and a jail sentence today.

Secretary of State Peter Hain announced that he has approved the use of the controversial Inquiries Act, which beefs up the powers to compel witnesses to testify, in the case.

The chairman of the inquiry, retired High Court judge Sir Edwin Jowitt, had asked for the change chiefly because of concerns about whether witnesses would cooperate.

Mr Hamill was fatally beaten in 1997 in Portadown centre. He was attacked by a loyalist mob and his family have complained that police saw the attack and failed to intervene.

Several people called as witnesses by the inquiry are understood to have failed to cooperate so far. If that continues, they face heavier jail sentences and stiffer fines than previously available.

The Inquiries Act has been criticised by human rights organisations because it allows the Secretary of State to keep information secret on national security grounds through restriction notices.

Mr Hain said today: "I am determined that the truth about this appalling murder must emerge.

"I have agreed to the request from Sir Edwin Jowitt to convert the Robert Hamill Inquiry to the Inquiries Act because I am clear that the inquiry must have the tools it needs to carry out its work fully and effectively.

"The Inquiries Act provides a modern, robust basis for public inquiries which are genuinely independent."

Barra McGrory, lawyer for the Hamill family, said: "This isn't unexpected as we had previously received notification from the Secretary of State that he was willing to grant the application to convert."

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