`Sue for libel' Lawrence suspects told

THE FIVE men accused of the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence were yesterday challenged to back their protestations of innocence in court.

The Daily Mail invited the "Lawrence Five" to sue it for libel after the suspects' mothers took part in a radio interview and claimed their sons were not racist or violent and had been victimised by the media.

The mothers of David Norris, the brothers Neil and Jamie Acourt, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight also maintained that they wanted to sue the Daily Mail, which had branded the five "murderers". They claimed they were only prevented from doing so by lack of funds.

In response the newspaper stated it would "welcome the opportunity to establish the truth in a court of law about this terrible crime".

The interview with Pam Knight, Patricia Acourt, Pauline Dobson and Theresa Norris on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme with presenter John Humphrys came days before Sir William Macpherson publishes his report on the murder.

Under questioning the women claimed that the "persecution" of their sons was "political". One added: "Our sons aren't racist. We take people as we find them." When Mr Humphrys pointed out that the five had been secretly filmed by the police "using the most appalling racist language and behaving in the most appalling racist way", one of the women explained it away as "bravado".

Mr Humphrys asked Mrs Acourt about footage which showed Neil Acourt "wielding a knife, showing somebody how to stab a black man ... if it didn't suggest violence, it's hard to imagine what might."

She responded: "I don't think it suggested violence at all ... it was play- acting."

The women refused to say where their sons were on the night of Stephen's death "because of legal reasons". And they claimed the men had not sued for libel because they had been advised by lawyers it would cost "at least pounds 500,000".

Asked what they would say to any lawyer prepared to assist with a libel action, one said: "Please get in touch."

In the past, however, the "Lawrence Five" have done their utmost not to answer questions about the murder - both at the inquest and the inquiry.

The BBC defended the interview, saying the programme wanted to hear all sides. Mr Humphrys said it had been a difficult one to get right. "I wanted them to talk and if you get a sense ... that by shouting and screaming and banging the table they are not going to talk then you'd be mad to conduct the interview that way."