Court backs Howard over IRA men's rights

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The Independent Online
The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was yesterday cleared by the High Court of accusations that he unlawfully denied IRA prisoners the right to proper contact with their families and lawyers.

Lord Justice Rose and Mr Justice Wright rejected claims that he acted outside his powers by directing that convicted terrorists in "exceptionally high escape risk" category could receive only "closed visits".

Michael O'Brien, serving 18 years for attempted murder, and Liam O'Duibhuir, jailed for 30 years for conspiracy to cause explosions, had claimed that the policy amounted to a fundamental breach of human rights. But the judges said "closed visit" arrangements in their cases could not be described as "other than reasonable", given society's need for protection against high-risk prisoners. They refused leave to appeal.

Mr Howard ordered a jail security clampdown after the attempted armed IRA breakout from Whitemoor prison, Cambridgeshire, in September last year. The new arrangements apply to exceptionally high-risk Category A prisoners, of whom there are 13 in top-security jails. They have no physical contact with visitors and are separated by glass screens during meetings.

O'Dhuibhir is being held at Belmarsh prison in south London and O'Brien is at Whitemoor. O'Dhuibhir took part in the Whitemoor incident and now faces a charge of breaking prison and possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life. O'Brien was not involved in the breakout but is applying to the House of Lords for permission to appeal over his original conviction in March 1993.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, for the two men, argued that the "closed" regime was unjustifiable in the light of other stringent security measures being enforced at top security prisons to prevent unauthorised items being smuggled to inmates. Visitors to special secure units in top security prisons had to undergo two body searches, X-ray screenings and pass through metal detectors, said Mr Fitzgerald. Security cameras were operating throughout visits. Babies even had to wear special prison nappies.

O'Brien was suffering mental illness as a result of the conditions under which he was being held and faced the prospect of not being able to touch and hold his wife and children during his time in prison.

The judges said the loss of physical contact in O'Brien's case with his family was "of considerable significance". But provided humanitarian consider- ations were taken into account - as the evidence showed they were, said the judges - they werenot such as should be regarded by the court as outweighing the security considerations.

The ruling comes just two weeks after Mr Howard was condemned twice in 48 hours. The European Court of Human Rights criticised the SAS killing of three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar. Then the High Court in London found that Mr Howard had delayed parole hearings for five of Britain's longest-serving IRA prisoners.