Death threats against prominent human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson were broadly ignored by the RUC police prior to her assassination, according to a new report.
Ms Nelson, a mother of three, had defended suspects in high-profile cases and represented Portadown residents who opposed the controversial Drumcree parades by the Protestant Orange Order.
She was fatally wounded outside her home in March 1999 by a bomb placed under her car by a group calling itself the Red Hand Defenders. The high-explosive, booby-trap device was similar to others used in acts of collusion between British military forces and unionist paramilitaries.
An investigation by Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan into the manner in which RUC/PSNI dealt with the threats against Mrs Nelson found that the force “did not properly consider the particular nature of Mrs Nelson’s public profile, or the level of concern about her safety”.
O’Loan was responding to a complaint by the Committee for the Administration of Justice, a non-governmental organisation with whom Nelson worked.
Mrs O’Loan identified some 20 acts of intimidation and threats, including warnings contained in leaflets which referred to the lawyer in “an abusive and inherently dangerous manner” as well as an anonymous letter received by Mrs Nelson that same year which stated: “We have you in our sights. RIP.”
She found that the RUC/PSNI was aware of the various threats and concluded that they “did not deal with either the letter or the leaflet properly”.
In particular, Ms O’Loan said the RUC/PSNI “did not acknowledge the existence of the previous death threats, including two threats which were said to have come from police officers. Nor did they acknowledge a previous assessment in which Special Branch believed Mrs Nelson was at a ‘degree of risk’.”
She linked the behaviour of the RUC to “ill-disguised hostility” towards the lawyer within the force.
The murder was previously investigated by Canadian judge Peter Cory who recommended to the British government that an independent tribunal of inquiry be established. That tribunal is due to announce the start of formal hearings next month.
CAJ director Maggie Beirne, responding to the report, said: “The Ombudsman has confirmed that those threats were not treated with the gravity and urgency required.”
She hoped that the tribunal of inquiry into Mrs Nelson’s murder will thoroughly explore the circumstances around the killing.
Sinn Féin Policing Board member Daithi McKay called for the British government to lift restrictions on the tribunal of inquiry.
“Rosemary Nelson was killed by Loyalists in 1999 after years of death threats made by Loyalists and RUC personnel,” he said.
“She was a well respected human rights lawyer who stood up for the rights of local people yet these serious threats were not dealt with seriously by either the RUC or NIO.
“There is a widely held belief that British State agents were directly involved in Rosemary Nelson’s murder.
“This belief has been strengthened over the years as successive RUC and PSNI regimes have sought to frustrate and delay the search for the truth.”