Free at Last!

Six hundred and fours days after first being jailed, North Belfast man John O’Hagan (31) spoke out yesterday for the first time following his surprise release on bail from Maghaberry Prison.

The bail decision came after an unsuccessful application for stay of proceedings by Mr O’Hagan’s legal team before Justice Coughlin at a court hearing on Tuesday.

Although Mr O’Hagan was relieved to be released – albeit on bail – he expressed deep reservations about the future of his case.

Interviewed exclusively by the Andersonstown News, Mr O’Hagan was angry about the way he has been treated, but defiant and determined too.

Mr O’Hagan was arrested on March 30, 2002 – Easter Saturday – and was subsequently charged with possessing information that could be useful to terrorists.

Although Mr O’Hagan’s arrest was initially linked by the PSNI to the Castlereagh burglary, responsibility for the case was formally assumed by the PSNI’s new unit, REMIT – even though REMIT was only established six months later in October 2002.

Mr O’Hagan has served what is effectively a three and a half year sentence.
He has been denied bail on eight separate occasions following strenuous opposition from the PSNI and Crown counsel.

"You have a situation where I have spent over 20 months on remand in custody, where the PSNI has leaked all sorts of untrue and unsubstantiated allegations about my case to the media, and where many figures have made highly political and highly prejudicial statements about my case – and I haven’t even had a trial yet."

In terms of the context of his case, Mr O’Hagan said that a number of fundamental inconsistencies are apparent.

"After I was arrested there were three weeks in which scurrilous and unsubstantiated leaks to the media were made by the PSNI, making all sorts of wild allegations about my case.

"At the same time the Secretary of State John Reid said the material allegedly linked to my case was neither a danger to the cessations, the Agreement nor the individuals concerned – and he said he made that assessment on foot of security briefings.

"So a massive contradiction arises. Without prejudicing the detail of my case, on the one hand the PSNI allege that I am a serious danger to society, yet on the other hand John Reid – quoting security sources – declares that my case does not represent any threat."

Mr O’Hagan also revealed, for the first time, that his legal advisors have written to Mr Reid and the PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde putting both men on notice that they may be summonsed as witnesses if the case ever goes to trial.

"When you look at it, REMIT has no problem with resources or staff or power. The reason they are dragging out my case, in their own admission, is to do with ‘priorities’.

"So here we have a virtually autonomous Special Branch team within the PSNI in charge of political policing and with an ability to set their own ‘priorities’ in terms of what individuals they target, what legal teams they assist and so on.

"Is it any wonder anti-Agreement loyalists are getting their cases pushed through in record time?" Mr O’Hagan asked.

Alleging that a political agenda is being driven by REMIT against pro-Agreement republicans and nationalists, Mr O’Hagan was also critical of general delays in his case.

Despite ongoing defence concern, however, Justice Coughlin formally stated his belief at Tuesday’s court hearing, that these delays are not unreasonable.

According to Mr O’Hagan, however, "numerous requests we have made for basic evidential disclosure have been obstructed. For example, our independent experts were only permitted access three weeks ago to evidence with 250 fingerprints on it.

"My case was supposed to begin next Monday. Now how could I possibly formulate an effective defence and ensure a fair trial in such circumstances?"
Mr O’Hagan said that the situation in Maghaberry for republican prisoners of every allegiance continues to be difficult.

"There is significant resistance within the prison administration and the Prison Officers Association to implementing the basic requirements of the Steele Report on segregation. The administration is foot-dragging for political reasons and the POA are focusing their resistance on families because they are the vulnerable link.

"As always, the families bear the brunt – whether it be physical or verbal attack, the infamous ‘drug-dog’ or visits cancelled at the last minute.
"But, crucially, it must be remembered that the POA’s motivation in all of this is simply to get more money."

John O’Hagan acknowledged the "sterling work" done by his legal team to date and thanked his partner, family and friends for their support.
He also acknowledged ongoing scrutiny by the Andersonstown News and North Belfast News of the case.

Mr O’Hagan’s case is listed for mention again in January.

Journalist:: Jarlath Kearney

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