Prosecutors have been accused of ‘dragging their feet’ on the prosecution of five British soldiers who shot a young man six times in the back.
James Bell was 24 years old when he was shot dead as he ran away from members of the Parachute Regiment in the grounds of the Greenvale Hotel in Cookstown.
Five soldiers involved in the shooting have been questioned by PSNI and a file sent to prosecutors recommending they face charges, but so far nothing has been done.
Mark Bell and his sister Dolores Devlin said: “Our father was gunned down as he ran away from soldiers. He was unarmed. This was a clear case of shoot first and ask questions later.
“We were so young when daddy was killed we have no memories of him. We want to see those who denied us the opportunity of getting to know him standing in a courtroom facing charges.”
Their mother couldn’t cope after the 1980 killing and three of the youngsters were taken into care.
Their case is backed by victims’ group Relatives For Justice, which says the test for prosecution has been met and questions why the PPS hasn’t moved “despite receiving the PSNI file recommending charges a year ago”.
James Bell and his brother Tony were petty criminals who had broken into the hotel around 3.15am on a summer night in August.
According to a report in the Belfast Telegraph, a police account of the killing states that the brothers came out the side of the building where two soldiers were positioned. The paratroopers then claim they shouted “Halt!” and that one of the Bells pointed a gun at them, so they opened fire.
The brothers then ran to the back of the hotel where another two soldiers were positioned. They also claim they shouted “Halt!” but that a gun was pointed at them so they opened fire. A fifth soldier hidden in a bush fired 30 rounds.
The paratroopers fired a total of 91 bullets. Tony Bell wasn’t hit and managed to run off, but James was shot six times. The soldiers said they found him slumped against a woodpile when they searched at daylight.
There are claims James Bell didn’t die immediately and there were delays in administering first aid and calling an ambulance. His family fear he may have been deliberately left to bleed to death.
No weapon was ever found, nor evidence presented that the Bells had possessed one. The brothers had minor criminal convictions but neither had IRA connections. James Bell’s wife Colleen was a Protestant.
The family had moved into a house near the hotel a week earlier. Tony Bell later said they’d carried out the robbery because James had needed money for “a bed, chairs and curtains”.
Dolores Devlin said: “My father didn’t pose a threat to anybody. He was unarmed and running away. He was shot in the back. They didn’t find a gun because there was no gun.
“The Paras saw daddy and Tony coming into the Greenvale’s grounds carrying a bag in the early hours of the morning. They didn’t try to apprehend them.
“They saw them breaking in and they didn’t try to stop that either. They just sat back and observed. They let them carry on with whatever they presumed they were at.”
Mark Bell said: “Why didn’t the soldiers act to protect property? Why didn’t they call the police? We believe they let things unfold so they could shoot daddy and Tony.
“We are also asking if daddy might have lived had he received medical help more quickly. It tortures us to think he may have lay terrified and in pain for hours.”
In 2016 the family sought a fresh inquest. An investigation was carried out by the PSNI’S Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB). One ex-soldier lives in the Middle East and the LIB have no powers to interview him unless he enters British jurisdiction; the others were interviewed by detectives.
It is understood that in a file sent to the PPS the PSNI recommended prosecuting the five soldiers who fired that night “in relation to homicide and other offences”.
The Bells have accused the PPS of prolonging their agony by taking so long to decide on bringing charges.
Mary McCallan of Relatives For Justice said it was “totally unacceptable” the PPS had not moved to charge the paratroopers.
She said: “We have voiced our concern to the PPS about their approach to this case, which is sitting with them an inordinately long time. This lengthy wait is upsetting a family already traumatised by losing their father as young children.
“The PPS are saying additional expert reports are needed relating to ballistic and forensic evidence. We fear they are potentially looking for reasons not to prosecute, or at least to narrow the number of soldiers charged.
“The PPS’s negativity and pessimism towards the case has led ourselves and the Bell family to question how committed they are to making a fair decision.
“The test for prosecution is that there must be a ‘reasonable prospect of success’. Five soldiers fired 91 bullets at James Bell. We feel this is a matter for assessment in a public trial.”