Men’s arrests linked to ‘other operations’

A Belfast court has heard that the high-profile arrest of three local men in October 2002 “was connected to at least three, and perhaps four, security force operations”.

The assertion came during submissions by defence counsel acting for Denis Donaldson, Ciarán Kearney and Billy Mackessy at a special sitting in the High Court last Thursday.

All three men were arrested on October 4, 2002, during a major PSNI operation that precipitated the collapse of the power-sharing Assembly.

Already half the charges in the case have been dropped without explanation, and the cases against two other people accused of associated offences have collapsed, again without explanation.

Last Thursday’s defence submissions were made immediately prior to a private application by the Crown for a Public Interest Immunity Certificate (PIIC) – or gagging order.

The purpose of the PIIC application is to prevent the defence from discovering key aspects of the case background and alleged evidence against the three men.

During the earlier submissions, Justice Coughlin heard that the Crown had declined to specify, or even categorise in general terms, the information which is currently being withheld.

Defence counsel, Séamus Treacy QC, said that the case against the accused is “very complex” and that there is “a very, very substantial body of undisclosed material”.

On account of the defence being excluded from the later PIIC application, Mr Treacy called for Justice Coughlin to appoint a special independent counsel who could scrutinise the process.

Mr Treacy said that the “exceptional factors in the case” warrant such an appointment.

These factors, he said, include the failure of the Crown to categorise what information should be withheld; the central relationship between the charges and the material being withheld; the background to the case, involving various PSNI operations; and the voluminous amount of prosecution material that would require to be scrutinised.

Mr Treacy highlighted media reports about the PSNI operations that preceded the arrests, including Operation Hezz, Operation Husk, and Operation Torsion, as well as an Operation codenamed ‘TTTT’ in the Crown papers.

The best known of these is Operation Torsion, which, Mr Treacy pointed out, has been detailed by the BBC’s Security Editor Brian Rowan.

Mr Rowan has alleged that Operation Torsion involved widespread Special Branch surveillance, covert PSNI house break-ins, the removal and replacement of alleged evidence before the arrests, and the use of an agent.
Crown Counsel Gordon Kerr – who was bringing the subsequent PIIC application – argued that “the core issues in the case are not complex”.

“It is a matter of proving possession and proving what the purpose of that possession was,” said Mr Kerr.

However, Séamus Treacy submitted that the accused should be entitled to all material connected with or arising out of the Special Branch operations that preceded the arrests, for example, the circumstances in which allegedly incriminating material came to be in the home of Mr Donaldson whenever the PSNI raided.

Justice Coughlin is currently considering the PIIC application.

Journalist:: Jarlath Kearney

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