Ulster lawyers `threatened by RUC'

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The Independent Online
ON 30 MARCH the Northern Ireland human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson, who was killed last week by a car bomb, was to meet a police watchdog body about her allegations of death threats.

She had arranged to see the independent Police Complaints Commission to discuss the findings of an inquiry set up after a United Nations human rights report last year. That quoted complaints from Mrs Nelson that she had been the victim of "numerous death threats".

The striking thing about the death threats allegation is not that it was unusual but rather the opposite: it was so familiar as to be a matter almost of routine in certain legal circles.

The UN report was just the latest of many which have drawn attention to allegations that RUC detectives threaten suspects, their families and their lawyers.

Mrs Nelson, one of the province's best known solicitors, had acted for nationalists in several prominent cases, and had worked for Catholic residents trying to stop loyalist marches along the Garvaghy Road in Portadown. A renegade loyalist group, the Red Hand Defenders, claimed responsibility for the car bomb that killed her in Lurgan, Co Armagh.

Only a few solicitors have voiced complaints as Mrs Nelson did, but their allegations have been made repeatedly for more than a decade. The firms involved number perhaps half a dozen and are generally those who handle a high level of paramilitary-style cases.

Mrs Nelson was unusual in that she was prepared to make her complaints vocally and in public. An additional dimension in her case lay in her allegations that she had been physically manhandled by police several times. One of her clients was said to have been told during interrogation: "You're dead. Tell Rosemary she's going to die too."

Since the assassination of the prominent solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989, most other people have tended to speak to international investigators in conditions of anonymity.

One Belfast human rights activist said: "This affects only a small number of solicitors, mainly in Belfast, but the threats are very serious. They are made both against those who represent republicans and those who act for loyalists."

Republican and loyalist paramilitary sources say threats are routinely made against their members and their solicitors. An illustration of some RUC attitudes was given by John Stalker, the senior British police officer called in to investigate fatal shootings by the RUC in the early 1980s. He recalled in his memoirs that he was approached by an RUC sergeant who had seen him talking to a man and his solicitor. He said the sergeant said to him: "May I speak to you, Mr Stalker. Do you know who that was you were speaking to? The solicitor is an IRA man. Any man who represents IRA men is worse than an IRA man."

A government appointed watchdog, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, recommended several times that the government look into the threats issue. While stopping short of endorsing the complaints, the commission urged the government "to take all reasonable steps to eliminate the circumstances which give rise to such allegations".

Under the Conservatives the usual response from both the government and the RUC was to cast doubt on the complainants, to say a propaganda war was under way, and to ask anyone with evidence to produce it for investigation by the RUC. In its response to the United Nations report last year the Labour government said the matter was one of considerable concern and asked anyone affected to provide specific details which could be investigated. It added that it was considering the question of the standard of proof required to substantiate such cases.

Many previous reports had raised the threats issue, including studies in 1992 by the London-based Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the National Council for Civil Liberties. Then in 1997 the New York-based Human Rights Watch, after hearing evidence from Mrs Nelson and others, recommended that such allegations be investigated rigorously.

In 1996 the US-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights devoted 40 pages of a Northern Ireland report to what it described as the intimidation and harassment of defence lawyers. In a reference to the solicitor Pat Finucane, shot dead by loyalists in 1989, it said: "Crude death threats to solicitors, conveyed via comments to prisoners in the detention centres, often make derogatory reference to Finucane, suggesting others may face the same fate."

A report by the same organisation three years earlier said almost every solicitor it had interviewed had related stories of death threats.

It reported one detainee's allegation that detectives had told him his solicitor was "a dirty Provo scumbag and that he should be getting the same as Pat Finucane".

Earlier this year more than 1,000 local and international lawyers called for a public inquiry into his death.