Torture allegations return to haunt legal process

"300 Irish republican ex-prisoners are to attempt to have their convictions overturned" according to Henry McDonald in a story in yesterday's Guardian and repeated extensively elsewhere (Daily Telegraph for instance) today.

According to the article, a number of the former IRA prisoners allege that the convictions were secured through "confessions extracted under torture and duress".

Although often denied in years past, it is now accepted that the security forces in Northern Ireland operated a regime of so-called “interrogation in depth”, an issue that I blogged (Torture – 1970s Northern Ireland; 21st century world)  back in March, prompted by further revelations of American abuses in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

As I noted then and is noted in the newspapers today, in the 1970s Amnesty International helped to expose the use of the infamous 'five techniques' used here in security force interrogations of terrorist suspects: (1) hooding, (2) wall-standing, (3) subjection to noise, (4) relative deprivation of food and water and (5) sleep deprivation.

Today's detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, will be familiar with the  the techniques, revived as part of the US-led and UK-assisted 'war on terror'.

That the "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" (as described by the European Court of Human Rights in a 1977 ruling), meted out in 1970s Northern Ireland, may now come back to haunt the legal process in the shape of large scale challenges to alleged unsafe convictions, can scarcely be a surprise to legal experts.

That it has taken thirty-odd years may be the greater surprise. As the case of Guantánamo detainee Binyam Mohammed (help him here) may have started to illustrate, the UK's role in recent ill-treatment and/or torture of 'war on terror' prisoners, may come to light rather more quickly.

The fact is, at least some of those convicted in the 1970s of terrorist offences in Northern Ireland may well have been innocent. Indeed, given what we know about the unreliability of 'evidence' extracted under torture / duress, it would be surprising if a number of them were not. In other cases, the guilty party may well have been identified and successfully convicted, but if those convictions were based on practices incompatible with justice (evidence-tampering or prisoner abuse, for instance), then they would indeed be unsafe according to the law.

And, by the way – in case anyone is in any doubt – I am under no illusions about how the IRA often treated its 'prisoners': a bullet in the back of the head and a body left by the roadside across the border. And that's only if the victim and their family were lucky

We rightly expect a lot more from our government, its agents and the legal process.

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