Northern Ireland Detention challenge successful

A challenge to the continued detention of six suspects in the killings of two soldiers on 7th March 2009 was today successful. The six men were immediately released but Colin Duffy, a prominent republican and former IRA prisoner was immediately rearrested under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000. That re-detention is now the subject of a legal challenge.

The men had all been in custody since the 14th March and had had their detention extended under the UK anti-terror laws which allow for a 28-day detention period. The challenge was made specifically to a decision on the weekend to continue the detention for seven days whilst the PSNI waited for results of forensic tests.

Northern Ireland’s lord chief justice, Sir Brian Kerr, quashed the decision to extend the detention period. Giving judgment for three judge panel, Sir Brian Kerr ruled that the County Court Judge, while making her deliberations, had not taken into account whether the suspects’ original arrest had been lawful.

Kerr did not himself question the lawfulness of those arrests but said the judge who granted the extension should have examined the issue. He found that the lawfulness of the arrests should be examined, though this did not have to include a detailed analysis of the police’s grounds for the arrest. It was also accepted that it was not necessary to disclose full information “for reasons of public safety”.

As a result of these conclusions the court found that the detention was not lawful. A lawyer for one of the men welcomed the decision saying:

“The decision of the court has backed the position that the defence lawyers have taken from the very start of the arrests. We have always taken the view that not to examine the conduct of arresting officers when considering to detain people under the Terrorism Act has always been a breach of human rights.”

Defence lawyers had also raised a claim that the detention breached the men’s right to liberty under the European Convention on Human Rights. This issue was set aside to allow for a full hearing of the case to be heard in order to quickly address the legality of the detention under domestic law.

The ruling clearly has implication more generally regarding the interpretation and review of detention periods throughout the UK under anti-terrorism legislation requiring the courts to undertake a more thorough review of aspects related to the extended detention of suspects rather including the initial arrest process.

The detention of the men had created a different controversy earlier on the week when the head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Monica McWilliams criticised the conditions that the suspects were being held in in the serious crime suite of Antrim police station. Professor McWilliams said the holding centre had been designed for detaining suspects for shorter periods than the current 28 days allowed under current legislation.

Two unionist commissioners, Jonathan Bell and Lady Daphne Trimble, have now disassociated themselves from Prof McWilliams’ comments, leading to an embarrassing public split in the body.

Ms McWilliams defended her comments and her role, saying she was not there to “reflect populist sentiment”.

“I remind those concerned that the commission is charged to independently ensure human rights standards are adhered to and maintained, not to reflect populist sentiment. It is important on such sensitive issues to provide considered and informed responses. It is worth noting that the Policing Board itself reported the lowest level of satisfaction with Antrim station following visits to custody suites throughout Northern Ireland.”

UPDATE 27 March

Colin Duffy today appeared in court charged with murdering the two soldiers. He was refused bail and remanded in custody until 21 April when he will appear at Antrim Magistrates Court. Duffy denies all charges. In addition to the two murder charges, Duffy is also charged with five counts of attempted murder and one of possession of a firearm and ammunition.