Alleged leader of Real IRA faces barracking in court over Omagh

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Amid tight security in a Dublin court yesterday, one man said what was being left unsaid by the lawyers and the judges. "What about Omagh?" demanded Lawrence Rush, a bereaved husband, in the public gallery at the opening of the trial of Michael McKevitt.

Mr McKevitt, from Dundalk, Co Louth, faces charges of membership of the Real IRA and of directing terrorism. He is the first person charged under legislation brought in after the 1998 Omagh bombing, but he does not face any charges over the atrocity.

Defence counsel objected to the shout from Mr Rush, whose wife, Libbi, was among 29 people killed in the attack, after he failed to provoke a reaction from the three trial judges. Counsel said: "It is unfair to my client and it is unseemly."

Mr McKevitt, a short, balding man, dressed in a blue blazer, and wearing steel-rimmed glasses, was given permission to leave the dock and sit with his lawyers after complaining about courtroom acoustics.

As the case got under way, the court was told the defendant had held more than 20 meetings with an American who was an agent for both the FBI and the British security services. David Rupert, who is to give evidence next week, will be the central witness in the case.

Outlining the evidence to be given by Mr Rupert, the counsel for the prosecution, George Birmingham, said Mr McKevitt had told him there was the possibility of conflict between the Real IRA and mainstream republicans. Because of this, he said, information had been assembled on senior republicans, including the holiday home of the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, in Donegal.

Mr Birmingham said Mr Rupert had been paid $1.25m (£745,000) by the FBI and the British security services. He had had no Irish connections before visiting Ireland in 1992, but through a girlfriend had met various republican figures.

In 1994, he had been visited in the US by an FBI agent who told him they were aware of his contacts and asked him to would supply information gathered on his frequent trips to Ireland. Matters were relatively casual at that stage, Mr Birmingham said, but in 1997 Mr Rupert was offered a contract by the FBI and agreed to go on the payroll. Months later, he agreed to work for a British agency as well.

He was said to have described himself as "a whore who would work for anybody who would pay him the right money". Mr Birmingham described Mr Rupert as "a figure of quite remarkable courage" who had pursued a dangerous task with great skill for many years.

The court was told that when Mr Rupert first met Mr McKevitt 1999, the defendant is said to have spoken of his interest in "cyberterrorism" and to have described the Omagh bombing as a joint operation by the Real IRA and another group, the Continuity IRA.

During Mr Rupert's meetings with Mr McKevitt at his home and at other properties in the Dundalk area, senior Real IRA figures were said to have been present.

These included a man who identified himself as being in charge of day-to-day operations, as well as members of the organisation's engineering section who had expertise in bomb-making and electronics.

Mr McKevitt was said to have spoken extensively about his background as former quartermaster of the IRA. He was claimed to have selected as a priority targets outside Ireland, members of the Belfast Assembly, and members of the British Army and police.

The defendant had made clear, Mr Birmingham said, his ability and willingness to select and reject targets. At one stage he had overruled a suggestion of killing a police officer because it "was not sufficiently spectacular". He had indicated that car bombs "were now out" unless directed at military targets with his permission. He had talked of taking the campaign to England.

Mr Rupert was asked to obtain material in the US, Mr Birmingham continued, such as marine magnets, encryption software and catalogues for spying equipment. He added that Mr Rupert had supplied only items for which the FBI gave him clearance.

He said Mr Rupert had not been a supergrass and had not been involved in terrorism, taking part only in an intelligence-gathering operation. Although initially reluctant, he had agreed to change his role and testify, though he realised it would be impossible for him to return to any normal lifestyle.

Mr McKevitt's counsel complained that an FBI agent, James Krupkowski, who is the supervisory special agent at the bureau's Chicago office, was sitting on the bench behind him "in full view of my notes and brief". The agent then moved along the bench away from counsel.

The case is being heard in the Special Criminal Court in Dublin, where a panel of three judges hear terrorist-type cases in the absence of a jury. The public gallery included not only Omagh relatives but also, not far away from them, Mr McKevitt's wife Bernadette Sands-McKevitt.

She is chairman of the Republican 32 County Sovereignty Movement, and a sister of the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, who died in 1981.