26 November 2005

Unionists challenge 'amnesty' for terror killers


25/11/2005 - 16:00:44

Unionists have launched a new bid to have murderers banned from a British government scheme to allow terrorist fugitives back into Northern Ireland without facing jail.

Even though the House of Commons has passed the latest stage of a bill which has provoked outrage, the DUP has tabled 55 amendments in an effort to thwart the legislation.

Their proposals also involve forcing those who benefit from the plans to serve at least a third of their prison sentence and for all inquiries into alleged security force wrongdoing during the conflict to be halted.

Other amendments include fixing a six-month time limit on applying for a certificate, and ordering applicants to attend a special tribunal.

Democratic Unionist MP Peter Robinson said: “This is a piece of legislation that we cannot support in any form as it is an affront to justice and an insult to the victims of the Troubles.

“Even if all of these amendments were passed, the Bill would still represent an unacceptable step for the government to take. But at least it would be an improvement on the total immorality of the current bill.

“We will use every Parliamentary opportunity to do all we can to block the passage of this legislation and the Government will be given a rough ride at every stage of legislation.”

Up to 150 so-called ‘On The Runs’ wanted for often horrific crimes committed before the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement would benefit from the scheme which the British government hopes will advance the political process in Northern Ireland.

Suspected terrorists who have been in hiding for years would have their cases heard by a special tribunal.

If convicted they would be given sentences but released on license without being imprisoned.

Although Sinn Féin has demanded their return to the North under what many have labelled an amnesty, republicans insisted police officers and soldiers who colluded in terrorist murders should not be included in the plans.

Their nationalist rivals in the SDLP, who opposed the bill, accused Sinn Féin of championing legislation that sets state killers free.

The party also claimed loyalist paramilitary drug dealers will be able to skip prison because the legislation refers to offences committed before April 1998 connected with terrorism, whether committed for terrorist purposes or not.

Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s policing spokesman, said: “It means that people who dealt drugs to raise money for loyalist paramilitaries will be eligible.

“If they are ever charged, they will not have to turn up in court. They will not have to face a single day in prison.

“Drug dealing and racketeering done to raise money for Loyalist Volunteer Force, Ulster Volunteer Force or Ulster Defence Association godfathers will therefore be covered.

“The same goes for IRA bank robbing and other crime before the Good Friday Agreement.”

The Northern Ireland Office stressed the eligibility of individuals and what offences are included would be down to the Certification Commissioner.

“In making decisions the commissioner will take account of information provided by the police and intelligence agencies,” a spokeswoman said.

“The legislation sets out strict criteria for the eligibility of individuals, referring to the behaviour of applicants – both terrorist activities and convictions for other serious offences – and the status of any organisation he or she supports.”

She added that the criteria was similar, if not stricter, to that drawn up for the early prisoner release scheme under the Good Friday Agreement.

“The Commissioner will have to consider whether an offence is connected to terrorism,” she said.

“It’s at present unclear whether charges would be brought against individuals for historic offences of the sort highlighted.”

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