Friday, June 22, 2012

A victory for justice

In 1973, 19 year-old Liam Holden was detained by the British Army in a midnight raid in Belfast. He was taken to a military command post where he was waterboarded into confessing to shooting a British soldier a month earlier. he was subsequently convicted of murder on the basis of that confession, and was sentenced to death - becoming the last person in the UK to be given a death sentence.

Fortunately, Holden wasn't hanged. But he did serve 17 years in prison before his release in 1989. Now, his conviction has been overturned by the Court of Appeal, after a recommendation from the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The reason?

The CCRC referred Holden's case back to the court of appeal three years ago, saying it had unearthed new evidence that cast doubt upon "the admissibility and reliability" of the confession that led to him being convicted of murder and possession of a firearm. There was a real possibility, the body added, "that the court will conclude that they are unsafe and quash them".

At the insistence of the Ministry of Defence, however, key passages of the CCRC's file were concealed from Holden and his lawyers. Even when the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast said that it was planning to oppose the appeal, the MoD refused Holden all permission to see the bulk of the contents of the secret file that supported his claims of innocence.


When Patricia Coyle finally won permission to see the contents of the closed CCRC file, the reason why the MoD did not want it to see the light of day was immediately apparent.

Within the file were a series of documents which showed that by the second half of 1972 British soldiers had been warned that they could not lawfully detain any suspect for longer than four hours. Furthermore, in July that year, government lawyers had warned the MoD that the practice of questioning prisoners at length at army posts – "which has apparently grown up without the authority of Whitehall" – was completely unlawful: prisoners must be handed over to the police at the earliest opportunity, must not be taken to army posts under any circumstances, and must not be questioned by soldiers once detained. All this was incorporated into a simple written order, known as the Blue Card, which was issued to every British soldier serving in Northern Ireland.

And the, of course, there's the torture. Faced with the prospect of evidence of its unlawful detention and torture of criminal suspects being entered into the court record, the government dropped its opposition to the appeal. Its a victory for justice (albeit 40 years too late), but it does raise a horrifying question. Holden's treatment was not unusual; it was standard operating procedure. So how many people did the British government hang as a result of confessions extracted by torture?