A weapons conviction against one of the so-called ‘Colombia Three’ is to be quashed, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Senior judges declared the guilty verdict against Martin McCauley unsafe after hearing claims that senior police officers lied to prosecutors and tried to manipulate the case.

Secret recordings of events in the Co Armagh farm shed where he was shot and a teenage friend killed were later found to have been destroyed.

Lawyers for McCauley, 52, argued that the tapes could have backed his claim that police issued no warnings before opening fire more than 30 years ago.

They based their case on the findings of an investigation into allegations that the RUC operated a shoot-to-kill policy.

Karen Quinlivan QC said: “The entire conspiracy was designed to ensure police were immune from prosecution.”

McCauley, from Lurgan, Co Armagh, may now sue for malicious prosecution.

Nearly two decades after the shooting he was arrested along with Niall Connolly and James Monaghan in Colombia in 2001 and accused of IRA training of rebel FARC guerrilla forces.

At the time the three men’s detention threatened to destabilise the Northern Ireland peace process.

They were initially cleared of the charge, only to be convicted on appeal and sentenced to 17 years in jail.

But the three men avoided imprisonment by fleeing Colombia in 2004, turning up in the Republic of Ireland a year later.

Even though McCauley faces extradition to South America if he returns to Northern Ireland, the Court of Appeal in Belfast examined his conviction for possession of three rifles for which he received a two-year suspended jail sentence.

He was charged after being shot and wounded by an RUC team at a farm shed near Lurgan where the antique-style guns were discovered in 1982.

His 17-year-old friend Michael Tighe was killed in the operation.

That death was one of six cases John Stalker, the former assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, and Sir Colin Sampson of West Yorkshire Police, investigated to try to establish whether police intended to kill.

McCauley disputed police claims that he was armed and that three warnings were ignored before they opened fire.

His lawyers argue the conviction should be quashed because events at the farm shed were secretly recorded by police but never disclosed to the defence at trial.

The tape could have established whose account was more accurate, it was contended.

His case was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Case Review Commission, set up to examine miscarriages of justice.

The body has supplied a confidential annex to back its belief that the conviction is unsafe.

Central to the challenge are the contents of the Stalker and Sampson reports, which have never been made public.

Last week it was confirmed that the Public Prosecution Service was no longer opposing the appeal because material was withheld from it, the court and the defence at McCauley’s trial.

In court on Tuesday, defence counsel Ms Quinlivan set out a series of allegations as she argued for the conviction to be quashed.

She claimed police officers removed spent cartridges from the scene and allowed the security services to get rid of the listening device; that Special Branch officers were given full access to the scene for 90 minutes without documenting what they did there and that senior officers attempted to pervert the course of justice by publishing an untrue ‘cover story’ around the incident.

Ms Quinlivan also claimed that senior officers lied to the then Director of Public Prosecutions and concealed the fact of a listening device; debriefings were used to concoct a lying account of the incident; a recording of the incident was destroyed by a senior RUC office; military and RUC personnel colluded to falsify records about this destruction and information was kept from the trial judge and the defence.

She said: “It’s difficult to imagine a more fundamental abuse of process of the court, to allow police to manipulate proceedings in order to ensure police officers are protected from criminal sanctions, and to use the same investigation in order to secure the conviction of the victim of the unlawful conduct.”

Following her submissions, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, sitting with Lord Justices Girvan and Coghlin, confirmed that the conviction was unsafe and should be quashed.

Full reasons for their verdict will be given at a later date.

Outside the court McCauley’s solicitor, Fearghal Shiels of Madden and Finucane, revealed that a lawsuit may now be lodged.

He said: “We will be considering closely with Mr McCauley about bringing civil proceedings for a malicious prosecution.”

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