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Coalisland 'soldiers not entirely innocent': Five paratroopers bound over by court

A MAGISTRATE in Northern Ireland yesterday dismissed a series of charges of assault and disorderly behaviour against six paratroopers, but bound over five of them saying he was satisfied that they were not entirely innocent.

The outcome of the case, which concerned well-publicised disturbances in the largely republican Co Tyrone town of Coalisland a year ago, brought criticism from nationalist sources who said soldiers had escaped legal punishment for what were clearly illegal actions.

The six soldiers were prosecuted after allegations that a Parachute Regiment patrol had run out of control after an IRA bomb severely injured a colleague 10 miles away. They faced charges of assault, disorderly behaviour and criminal damage.

The five bound over were Lieutenant Andrew Short, Sergeant John Wynne-Jones, Lance-Corporal John Hardy, Private David Forster and Private Alan Philip. The sixth soldier, Private Michael Wright, was not bound over.

The magistrate Maurice McHugh ruled that the soldiers had no case to answer, saying that since there was a reasonable doubt about their guilt all charges would be dismissed. He bound them over to keep the peace for 18 months.

The court heard evidence from witnesses who said soldiers had rushed into two bars, kicked and punched customers and damaged furniture and fittings. The defence argued that they were in pursuit of a man who had thrown a bottle.

The prosecution argued that video evidence showed the person who threw a bottle was a member of the patrol. The magistrate said he found the video evidence poor, while the injured parties had been unable to identify any assailants.

Prosecuting counsel said that seven people had been injured during the incident.

Sinn Fein described the trial as a farce, saying the legal system had been used to protect British troops from the consequences of criminal behaviour.

A Parachute Regiment officer was suspended from duty following the incidents in May 1992. Not long afterwards three civilians were shot in the legs by a Parachute Regiment patrol. Later, in an unprecedented move, the brigadier in charge of the area was relieved of his command.

Father Denis Faul, a priest in Dungannon, said yesterday that he was disappointed the law was not able to prove a case. He said different charges, including conspiracy, should have been brought against the troops.

'This has been the pattern over the years - that charges are brought against the Army in these kind of circumstances which cannot be proved and then they all get off,' he said.

The local MP, the Ulster Unionist Ken Maginnis, said that in such a case it was never all right or all wrong and he was glad it was over.

'I am glad that by and large in this area there is a degree of co-operation with the security services, which I hope will not be jeopardised by any emotive words at this stage.'