North Belfast man in court on ‘Castlereagh’ charges

A North Belfast republican was rounded up during a massive PSNI operation, codenamed Operation Hezz, following the “very embarrassing” break-in at Castlereagh Special Branch offices on St Patrick’s Day 2002, the Crown Court heard on Friday.

But despite a seven hour house search, the PSNI failed to recover a single piece of evidence from a warrant listing 23 specific items which could have connected John O’Hagan with the apparent incident at Castlereagh barracks.

The warrant list included a blue pillow-case, a box for a Sony walkman, silver-grey duct tape, green braided rope, gloves, footwear, a dark coloured baseball cap, a sports bag, videos and maps of Castlereagh barracks, and a vehicle. The Crown, however, alleges that a number of other items were found which substantiate the charges brought against John O’Hagan.

Mr O’Hagan’s trial for possessing information that could be useful to terrorists commenced on Friday – two years and two months after his arrest.

Justice Morgan heard that Operation Hezz was mounted early on Saturday, March 30, 2002, after a number of different briefings were delivered by various senior PSNI detectives, including Acting Detective Superintendent Roy Suitters.

At 7.36 am, a PSNI team – using a sledgehammer to smash the door and dressed in boiler suits – entered the New Lodge house where Mr O’Hagan was staying.

In line with the instructions of senior officers directing Operation Hezz, Mr O’Hagan was arrested and removed from the scene immediately, at 7.42 am.
Crown Counsel told the court that a number of items were subsequently seized at the house, which – according to a defence solicitor during the initial PSNI questioning – was not, in fact, Mr O’Hagan’s home address.

Based on these finds, and other items obtained during a second search of the same house several days later, the Crown preferred eight specific charges against Mr O’Hagan.

These include allegations that he possessed personal details of members of the Tory Party, information on anti-interrogation techniques, details of police and military radio frequencies, and details about key public utilities in England.

The Crown is also linking a number of identity documents, written documents, computer equipment, and two books about Tory Party members John Major and Norman Lamont, to Mr O’Hagan. Crown Counsel told the court that, “other documents will be used as background evidence to set the find in a context”.

“Consideration of all the evidence will show that the accused was involved in intelligence gathering.”

Under cross-examination from Defence Counsel, a number of PSNI members who were responsible for the original search and arrest operation against Mr O’Hagan, admitted that the incident at Castlereagh had been “very embarrassing” to the police.

Defence Counsel suggested that the house search and the arrest of John O’Hagan was “a complete washout” in terms of the PSNI’s failure to recover any of the 23 items stipulated on the warrant in relation to Castlereagh.

Courtroom tension was broken at one point when Defence Counsel – using PSNI photographs of the interior of the house – pointed out a series of books in a bedroom, including one about pop star Gerri Halliwell.

“Would Gerri Halliwell be a target or a Spice Girl?” he asked.
Constable John Weir told the court that Operation Hezz was mounted based on “information received, intelligence gathered and inquiries made”.

He said that during briefings, senior PSNI officers indicated that it was “believed from intelligence that the Provisional IRA was responsible” for the Castlereagh incident.

Sergeant Andrew Duncan confirmed under cross-examination that his orders had been only to arrest John O’Hagan – despite the presence of a female in the house where the allegedly incriminating evidence was found. He stated that he had no knowledge of members of the press travelling with police to any of the locations searched and was not in a position to answer questions about media coverage of Operation Hezz.

Sergeant Duncan also confirmed that no items were found in the house which related to the Castlereagh investigation.
The trial continues.

Journalist:: Jarlath Kearney

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