The acquittal of former prisoner Gerard Magee on Friday 6 April opens the way for former prisoners convicted in non-jury Diplock courts to have their convictions similarly overturned.
The judgment handed down last Friday by the North’s top judge, Carswell, now calls into question many of the convictions based mostly on confession evidence obtained by the RUC through the ill treatment of detainees in holding centres such as Castlereagh and Gough Barracks in Armagh over the years.
The judgment, although forced on the North’s judiciary by the European Court of Human Rights, nonetheless means that the conveyer belt of British justice in the Six Counties has been exposed for its violations of the human rights of detainees.
Gerard Magee from Antrim was arrested in December 1988 and charged with conspiracy to kill British soldiers and possession of explosives. He was convicted of these charges in December 1990 by Judge Murray.
The only evidence against Magee was a signed confession made in Castlereagh RUC barracks in Belfast. Magee argued that he made the confession under duress and says he was physically abused by his RUC interrogators. He was also denied access to his solicitor during the first crucial 48 hours of interrogations, during which he made the confession used to convict him.
Judge Murray rejected Magee’s claims and accused him of fabricating the allegations. Magee appealed but in June 1993 the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, saying it was satisfied that the original conviction was “neither unsafe or unsatisfactory”.
Meanwhile, Magee instituted proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), arguing that his treatment in Castlereagh was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
On 6June 2000 the ECHR, in a written decision, ruled in Magee’s favour stating, “there had been a violation of Article 6 (1) of the Convention, in conjunction with Article 6 (3)(c) as regards the denial of access to a solicitor.
Given that Magee had already brought his case to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, this body, in light of the European ruling, returned his case to the Court of Appeal, which in turn acquitted him.
In his judgment, Carswell acknowledged that “if other cases come before us concerning admissions made in Castlereagh by persons whose access to legal advice was deferred, we shall take the ECHR’s decision into account”.
Speaking about the ruling, Magee said: “Many people were abused by the RUC. I hope this will lead to many opportunities for people to seek legal redress.”
Patricia Coyle of solicitors Madden and Finucane said: “This is an important judgement for others who have been convicted in Diplock Courts, either wholly or substantially on alleged confession evidence extracted under the regimes of Castlereagh and Gough Barracks without access to legal advice.”