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Life sentences for Belfast trio 'were unjust'

ONE OF Northern Ireland's most distinguished medical figures has spoken in support of three west Belfast men serving life sentences for allegedly aiding and abetting the murder of two soldiers.

William Rutherford, a consultant who retired several years ago after almost 20 years in charge of the casualty department of Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, has written to the Irish Times saying that the life sentences were 'manifestly unjust and should not be allowed to stand'.

The action of Mr Rutherford, who holds the OBE, is exceptional in that public figures outside the world of politics normally strictly avoid involvement in such human rights controversies. He said yesterday: 'I did not do this lightly. You wonder whether doing something like this will bring trouble to people around you, but I feel that general public interest can help in moving these cases along.'

The cases arose from the murders of two British Army signals corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes, who drove into a republican funeral in west Belfast in March 1988. They were dragged from their car, stripped, beaten and shot dead on waste ground.

Since then more than 40 men have been prosecuted in eight major trials, the most recent of which was held in Belfast earlier this month. Concern about some aspects of the trials has been expressed by a number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Belfast-based Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ).

The case which has attracted most attention is that of three men, Michael Timmons, Patrick Kane and Sean Kelly, who received life sentences for allegedly being present for several minutes at an early stage of the incident, before the soldiers were driven away and shot.

This month's trial of seven men was attended by observers from Amnesty, the CAJ and the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. During the trial, charges against five defendants were dropped while a sixth was found not guilty and the seventh received a suspended sentence.

Mr Rutherford contrasted the life sentences of Timmons, Kane and Kelly with the court's handling of other defendants, noting that judges had accepted arguments that defendants were affected by the hysteria of the occasion and believed they were acting in self-defence against loyalist terrorists. He wrote: 'These judgments and sentences are totally at odds with those given in the cases of Timmons, Kane and Kelly. In the light of the other sentences this is manifestly unjust and should not be allowed to stand.'