Beechmount Five: released, but no justice

Issue 

By Sean Magill

BELFAST — The security forces in the north of Ireland, in an attempt to extricate themselves from further embarrassment, have dropped the murder case against five young men, known as the Beechmount Five.

The five, framed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary for the killing of an RUC sergeant, were released on July 9. However, this is only a partial victory, as four of them had to plead guilty to the lesser charge of aiding and abetting — despite being innocent.

The fifth person, Mark Prior, was released a few days earlier when the prosecution offered no further evidence against him; the court had been told that Mark, 19 at the time of his arrest, had the mental age of a 10-year-old.

On May 1, 1991, the Irish Republican Army launched a rocket attack on an RUC Landrover, killing Sergeant Gillespie. In the following month the five teenagers were arrested and interrogated for periods of between two and seven days without access to solicitors or doctors.

They were held in the notorious Castlereagh Interrogation Centre, where they were severely ill treated, physically and psychologically, until they signed confessions admitting involvement in the attack. These confession formed the sole basis of the case against them, which alleged they had acted as lookouts for the IRA.

The RUC denied, when asked in court, knowing that Mark Prior was mentally retarded. The interrogation centre's doctor had okayed the interview — just as he has in every case over the past 20 years. Mark was spat on and head butted by police and asked who his friends were; he told them names of four friends, and these were subsequently arrested and framed.

One of the five, Laurence Hillick, was not arrested until one month after the others, in which time he turned 17; this allowed the RUC to interrogate him for

seven days without supervision under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The RUC, who knew from the outset that the five were innocent, had even tried to strike a deal with the IRA: if the IRA turned in those responsible, then the five lads would be released, they said.

Kevin Mulholland told Green Left Weekly that he had been with his boss at the time of the IRA attack, but the RUC had informed him that if he persisted in using this as an alibi, they would arrest his boss too.

None of the accused could possibly have done what was alleged; in fact, most were nowhere near the scene of the killing. Prior was said to have whistled to another as a signal, even though he couldn't whistle. Another was said to have waved a signal to the next, but there was a three-metre wall between where they were said to have been standing.

After the trial had been in progress for nine weeks the accused, who had been in custody for over two years, were advised that if they plea bargained they would walk free. With the right to trial by jury having been abolished years ago in the six counties of British-occupied Ireland for such offences, there was no guarantee that the ludicrousness of the case would have saved them from a lengthy sentence for murder.

A campaign mounted by the families of the accused and others concerned with the lack of justice in the north, including Amnesty International, turned a spotlight on the case. It was this that saved the five. The campaign to prove their innocence has not ended with their release; campaigners are hopeful that Amnesty International will continue its involvement.