Armagh man Sean Hoey has been cleared of any involvement in the 1998 Omagh bomb attack after a judge today [Thursday] rubbished the case presented by the PSNI/RUC police.
Mr Hoey waved to his family clapping in the public gallery before walking away a free man from the dock at Belfast Crown Court. He was also cleared of 26 other charges linked to a series of attacks in the months before Omagh.
The trial had been dismissed as a “farce” and a “show trial” by relatives of the Omagh bomb victims as well as Mr Hoey’s family and supporters.
It emerged last year that British forces had advance knowledge of the ‘Real IRA’ bomb plot, which killed 29 people, but failed to intercept the device despite warnings telephone calls. There have been persistent allegations that British agents were complicit in the atrocity, possibly to undermine support for the breakaway group.
The trial of Mr Hoey, who had been in custody since 2003, ended earlier this year.
Delivering his verdict nearly 10 months after the 56-day trial finished, Mr Justice Weir also hit out at lies by members of the PSNI and what he termed ‘contamination’ of forensic evidence.
He declared: “It is difficult to avoid some expression of surprise that in an era in which the potential for fibre, if not DNA, contamination was well known to the police, such items were so widely and routinely handled with cavalier disregard for their integrity.”
Critical evidence linking Hoey with IRA attacks had been found to have been tampered with while in the custody of the PSNI/RUC.
Families of the dead said they were stunned Hoey had been acquitted of all the charges, but have pledged to press ahead with a High Court civil action for #14 million compensation against five men whom they claim were responsible for the attack. It is due to start in April.
One of the five is Mr Hoey’s uncle, Colm Murphy, who is challenging a decision to re-try him in Dublin on charges connected to the Omagh bombing. He sat directly behind his nephew in the public gallery as Mr Justice Weir took an hour and a quarter to announce his verdict.
Acquitting Hoey, Justice Reg Weir attacked the forensic evidence presented in the case. He also heavily criticized the police who conducted the investigation and said he had concerns that two unnamed officers had lied.
“I am acutely aware that the stricken people of Omagh would wish to see whoever was responsible for that outrageous offence convicted and punished for their crimes,” he told the court.
“But I must also bear in mind the cardinal principle of criminal law,” he said, pointing to the requirement for proof beyond reasonable doubt.
The judge declared: “The evidence against the accused in this case did not reach that immutable standard.”
After one of the biggest murder trials in British history, the verdict infuriated relatives of those killed, most of whom have been highly critical of the authorities.
“Those of us that were in court today heard a catalogue of events that really beggared belief,” said Michael Gallagher, whose son died in the bomb attack. “It is an awful price we have to pay.”
Sinn Féin Policing and Justice Spokesperson Alex Maskey has supported fresh calls for a public inquiry into the bomb following the verdict.
“It is almost ten years since the horrific bomb attack in Omagh and people have lost all confidence that the police are ever going to put those responsible for this tragedy behind bars,” he said.
“Sinn Féin supports the call for the urgent establishment of a public inquiry which can get to the truth about Omagh.”
Hoey’s mother Rita told reporters outside the court: “I want the world to know my son, Sean Hoey, is innocent.”