Uproar as court releases three of 'UDR Four'

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THE Northern Ireland judiciary yesterday delivered a body blow to the credibility of the Royal Ulster Constabulary by freeing three of the 'UDR Four' and suggesting that police officers involved in the case might be prosecuted.

The Northern Ireland Appeal Court in Belfast found that detectives had rewritten interview notes and lied to the original trial of four former members of the Ulster Defence Regiment, who were jailed for life for the murder of a Catholic man in Armagh in 1983.

In addition, senior officers had falsely authenticated interviews. Prosecutions are now to be considered against officers with ranks as high as chief superintendent.

Uproar broke out in court when the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Brian Hutton, announced that he and two other judges were turning down the appeal of one of the four, the alleged gunman Neil Latimer.

One of the judges, Lord Justice Murray, leapt to his feet as Latimer, 30, climbed from the dock while calling: 'Let me out of here, you don't know what justice is.' The court was adjourned as Latimer struggled with prison officers and police while relatives and campaigners shouted protests from the public gallery.

The case of the four had been referred for a second hearing at the Appeal Court after Esda (handwriting analysis) tests showed discrepancies in notes of interviews carried out by detectives at Belfast's Castlereagh interrogation centre.

While Latimer remained in custody the other three men, Noel Bell, 28, Winston Allen, 32, and James Hagan, 42, were released late yesterday afternoon. They said they were relieved to be free but saddened and disappointed at the Latimer verdict.

Supporters of the four men promised yesterday that they would continue their campaign to have Latimer freed. His mother, Joan Latimer, said she was devastated by the verdict and that her son was very angry. Mr Bell's mother, Margaret, said: 'I don't feel his name has been cleared. I just feel it's not possible to clear the names of three and not all four.'

The campaign on behalf of the men has gone on for some years, attracting support from a range of figures, including prominent Unionist politicians.

The campaign's leader, Ian Paisley Jnr, declared yesterday that the decision to turn down Latimer's appeal was 'a complete and total gigantic error'.

He added: 'They have tried to salvage something from a wreck and they have destroyed the life of a man. This is not justice. We have a conviction based on the fact that senior police officers lied. This is not how British justice should be meted out.'

Campaigners said they were taking legal advice on how to pursue the Latimer case, possibly seeking another reference to the Appeal Court or seeking to take it to the House of Lords.

The outcome will lend weight to the arguments of civil liberties campaigners and other groups for new safeguards to protect suspects in custody in Castlereagh and elsewhere. The RUC said last night that interview procedures had been reviewed, and that new booklets to be used by detectives would be electronically date-and- time stamped upon issue and on completion of each interview.