Call to drop special Ulster laws

Angelique Chrisafis, Ireland correspondent
Monday January 31, 2005
The Guardian

Human rights groups are pressing the government to abolish Northern Ireland's anti-terrorism laws, saying they are excessive and can no longer be justified.

The Northern Ireland human rights commission begins briefing MPs this week on what it calls an unnecessary legal hangover from the Troubles. The UN committee against torture also questions about the need for such laws.

Under special legislation which is reviewed annually, Northern Ireland has anti-terrorism laws beyond those of the rest of the UK. Anyone arrested for an offence associated with terrorism, such as murder, assault or armed robbery, can be tried in a juryless court by one judge.

Such Diplock courts have been in place since 1973, when a report by Lord Diplock found juries trying cases related to terrorism could be partisan or open to intimidation. In 2000, a review found the threat of intimidation still existed.

If a person is arrested for a terrorist offence, including hijacking or firearms offences, they can be processed as a suspected terrorist, taken to a holding centre in Antrim and held for longer than ordinary legislation allows. They will be tried by a jury only if the director of public prosecutions decides the offence was not linked to terrorism. The police and army have powers to stop, question, arrest, enter, search and seize.

Parliament will debate a renewal of the laws soon.

From January to September 2004, 470 people in Northern Ireland were arrested under anti-terrorism powers. More than two-thirds had their cases downgraded and then tried by a jury.

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