British in the dock over PTA
After what Gerard Magee called ``another small victory for former republican prisoners against the British state'' in the European Court of Human Rights on 6 June, the British government will be bracing itself for a potentially huge number of cases brought by those arrested under emergency legislation contesting their convictions.
As reported in An Phoblacht last week, the European Court ruled against the British government in the case of Magee, finding that he had been denied the right to a fair trial because of his treatment in Castlereagh interrogation centre after his arrest in December 1988. The Court awarded him £10,000 in legal costs. At the time of his arrest, Magee was denied access to a solicitor for two and a half days and was ultimately convicted solely on the basis of a statement which had been beaten out of him. He is now seeking to have his conviction overturned.
In its ruling on the case, the court criticised the British government, saying that ``the austerity of the conditions of the applicant's detention and his exclusion from outside contact were intended to be psychologically coercive and conducive to breaking down any resolve he may have manifested at the beginning of his detention to remain silent... the applicant should have been given access to a solicitor at the initial stages of his interrogation as a counterweight to the intimidating atmosphere specifically devised to sap his will and make him confide in his interrogators.''
The case has huge implications for the way the security forces have made use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Many of the powers granted to the police under it, particularly concerning detention, are in direct contravention of European human rights law - hence its findings in the case of Magee. The new Terrorism Bill, due to replace the PTA and EPA early next year, while seeking to find a way around the legal problems posed by the European Court, nevertheless continues to permit the lengthy detention of suspects. As such, it will still be open to the sort of abuses which have commonly taken place in the past - Amnesty has called the new bill ``a blank cheque for the RUC'' - particularly in the event that the force remains fundamentally unchanged as proposed by the current Police (Northern Ireland) Bill.
However, this ruling does go some considerable way towards challenging the police's ability to abuse their powers, both in the denial of early access to legal representation to those accused of scheduled offences - which routinely occurs under the PTA - and in respect of the British government's massively criticised on-going legislative attack on the right to silence, which began around the time of Magee's arrest.
Further, the ruling is retrospective, meaning that almost all those arrested under the PTA from 1988 onwards, detained at Castlereagh and convicted on the basis of a confession obtained there, may be able to take their case to the European Court on the basis that such convictions are unsafe.