First paramilitary prisoners out soon

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST paramilitary prisoners to be released in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement may well be out in the streets in just over 10 days time.

Around 17 inmates, including one serving a life sentence, are expected to be the first to be freed on the week beginning Monday, September 7. This will be followed by up to 200 others by the end of October.

The details of the releases were announced by the recently instituted Sentence Review Commission, yesterday, at Belfast. It came amid calls from Unionists and Conservatives for the process to be halted following the Omagh bomb which claimed 28 lives, and the lack of decommissioning by the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries.

Nationalist prisoners belonging to the Irish Republican Army, the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association are eligible for early release under the scheme while members of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the Irish National Liberation Army, Continuity IRA and Real IRA are excluded.

The LVF and INLA have called permanent ceasefires since the referendum in the province two months ago, and the Real IRA, a breakaway faction from the Provisionals, said it was suspending military operations after admitting responsibility for the Omagh blast two weeks ago.

Continuity IRA, another Provisional offshoot, is the only paramilitary organisation self-confessedly active.

The Review Commission stated it had received 446 applications for early release, of which 38 had been returned "because they either do not conform to the agreed criteria or had been completed incorrectly".

Out of the admissions received 83 were at an advanced stage of review. A total of 32 had come from Republican prisoners, 29 from Loyalists and 22 from people convicted of terrorist offences who had dissociated themselves from the paramilitaries.

The two chairmen of the Commission, Sir John Blelloch and Brian Currin, said some "misunderstandings" about how the early release system worked had to be clarified.

Applications were passed to the Northern Ireland Prison Service, which had three weeks to check the accuracy of offences and sentences detailed, and to confirm the prisoners belonged to groups eligible for release.

The final decision would be made by three members of the Review Commission.

Inmates serving a fixed sentence would have their terms reduced by two- thirds.

When it came to life sentences the Commissioners would calculate how long a prisoner would serve under "normal" circumstances, and then reduce it by one-third. Prisoners unsuccessful with their applications could challenge the decision at a hearing before the Commission, and later through the courts by way of a judicial review.

As well as senior Tories and Unionists, some of the bereaved in Omagh are also opposed to the early release scheme going ahead.

Town councillor Crawford McFarland, whose 17-year-old daughter, Samantha, died in the bombing, said: "The release of these prisoners is going to make a lot of people very unhappy. Tony Blair should think again about the damage it could do to the peace process. We should wait for the terrorists to decommission before releasing terrorists."

However, both the Prime Minister Tony Blair and Ulster Secretary Mo Mowlam are said to be determined to press ahead with the prison release scheme, a central plank of the Good Friday Agreement, as is the Irish Premier Bertie Ahern.