EU court deals new blow on terror case

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Human rights judges in Europe dealt a fresh blow to the Government yesterday, by ruling that a Northern Ireland man, jailed for eight years for terrorist offences, had been wrongly denied access to a lawyer.

The court in Strasbourg denied John Murray - convicted of an IRA kidnapping five years ago - any compensation, but ordered that the Government pays pounds 15,000 of his legal costs. It will now have to amend its legislation, which in Northern Ireland enables terrorist suspects to be interviewed by police for 48 hours without access to lawyers.

But the judges rejected Murray's second claim, that his right to a fair trial had been further jeopardised because the trial judge in Belfast had drawn an "adverse inference" from the fact that Murray had exercised his right to silence.

The right to "read guilt" into a defendant's refusal to answer questions was introduced in 1988 in Northern Ireland and provided the model for the Government's recent abolition of the total right to silence in England and Wales.

The judges said the right to remain silent under police questioning and the privilege against self-incrimination were "generally recognised international standards which lie at the heart of the notion of a fair procedure" under the European Convention on Human Rights.

But the question of whether those rights were breached by drawing "adverse inferences" from an accused's silence depended on the circumstances of each case.

In Mr Murray's case, said the judges, the evidence presented by the prosecution had been considered to constitute a "formidable" case. He had been found in a house in Belfast where an informer had been taken and held by the IRA.

The man had been forced to make a taped confession - and Mr Murray was found pulling the tape out of a cassette machine when police arrived.

"In the court's view, having regard to the weight of the evidence against the applicant, the drawing of inferences from his refusal at arrest, during police questioning and at trial to provide an explanation for his presence at the house was a matter of common sense and could not be regarded as unfair or unreasonable."

But, because Mr Murray chose to remain silent and faced the prospect, of which he was warned, that adverse inferences might be drawn, it was all the more important that he should have access to a solicitor.

"To deny access to a lawyer for the first 48 hours of police questioning, in a situation where the rights of the defence may well be irretrievably prejudiced is - whatever the justification for such denial - incompatible with the rights of the accused," they said.

Downing Street said the judgment would be studied in detail. But it was pleased the court had not awarded compensation.