By Frank O'Brien
Donncha O'Kane sees his family three times a year. They travel from Castlewellan in County Down to visit him in prison in Celle in Germany. It is a long, expensive journey and, like the families of the other Irish prisoners held in Germany, they cannot afford to visit him more often.
Between visits, Donncha studies, learns German and keeps himself fit. Once a week he travels to court with his co-accused, Pat Murray from Mayo, to face charges of bombing a British army barracks in Osnabruck in 1989. They have been in prison, in France and Germany, for almost six years. In the dock with them is Pauline Drumm from County Fermanagh, who was arrested with them in France in 1989. She is currently out on bail.
Facing the same charges, but in a separate trial, is Donna Maguire from Newry, County Down, who has had four months of freedom since being arrested at Rosslare Harbour in Ireland in July 1989. She has the distinction of being the longest-serving remand prisoner in German legal history. She has now gone on trial in three different countries in the last six years. On 20-hour lock-up, she is isolated in a short-stay jail which houses drug addicts and pushers. She has never been convicted of any offence.
There is no evidence to link the four defendants to the Osnabruck bombing. No eyewitnesses, no forensic evidence from the scene, no statements, no clues of any kind. The prosecution case relies on linking the defendants to three apartments which were rented in the Osnabruck area in the months before the bombing. In one of the apartments "micro-traces" of Semtex were allegedly found. Identification evidence is said to link the accused to the apartments. This is weak and unsustainable, say their lawyers. Even if that evidence were to hold up, there is no link between the apartments and the bombing.
Traces of Semtex were also allegedly found in a car which was hired in the area using a false passport. Again, there is no evidence linking the car to the bombing.
The prosecution also seeks to link the defendants to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which carried out the operation. In a precedent set during trials of members of the Red Army Faction, if an organisation claims an attack and the prosecution links the accused to that organisation, it is admissible as evidence. As in conspiracy cases in British courts, this has led to the defendants' political opinions being used against them.
Personal letters and photographs, even greetings in An Phoblacht (Republican News) have been used as evidence. Pat Murray's lawyers have spent much time arguing that having an "IRA" tattoo does not indicate IRA membership, let alone prove that he bombed a British army barracks.
A number of European conventions state that no-one should be persecuted because of their political opinions. In a German court, it seems, an Irish republican political opinion can lead to persecution.
A further worrying aspect of the case is the way in which Drumm, Murray and O'Kane were extradited from France to Germany. The most serious charges on the extradition warrants related to an operation in Hanover in which a British soldier was killed. It was clear there was no evidence linking the three to this operation, yet it formed the main plank in the extradition case against them.
Pat Murray has accused the German authorities of "knowingly giving false information to the French government" in order to secure their extradition. In Pat Murray's case, the extradition warrant had his name, place of birth and height wrong.
The French court said that the murder charge left it no option but to allow the extraditions. Within days of the three arriving in Germany, the Hanover charges were dropped.
The case of the Irish prisoners in Germany is a cause clbre. It has involved several countries across the European Union, numerous trials and extradition cases and the flimsiest of evidence.
Most importantly it has involved the political persecution of four Irish people. Together, they have spent 22 years in jail and in that time, their lives have moved on. Donncha and Pauline were married over a year ago, but have yet to celebrate in freedom. Recently, Pat Murray's brother, Michael, died in England. The German courts refused to grant compassionate parole to allow him to attend the funeral.
Donncha O'Kane has been corresponding with several Australian Aid for Ireland supporters in Perth and Brisbane. In one letter he wrote, "As to how the case is going â well, I have to say that the judges still seem equally determined to find us guilty of the most serious charges we face, attempted murder relating to a bomb attack. The fact that as the case goes on, it becomes more and more clear that they have no proof of this has caused them some problems, but as yet it does not seem to have deterred them from trying to convict us.
"One consequence of the lack of proof however, has been that the tone of the trial has become more and more political and it is now blatantly obvious that we are really on trial for our political beliefs, or, at least, what the judges believe our beliefs to be. We've already been forced to make one official objection against the judges on account of their clear bias, but that was of course rejected ... by a similar panel of judges!!"
In another letter he wrote, "The murder charge was dropped, as were some of the attempted murder charges, as they admitted themselves that they had no evidence. Not that they've any evidence either for the attempted murder charges that they continue with, but they seem to feel they have to try and convict us of something."
Referring to Donna Maguire's trial in Dusseldorf, he wrote, "Another remarkable part of that trial was the fact that the charges against Donna Maguire were changed to aiding and abetting attack ... not physically, but 'psychologically and morally'!!"
Kathleen Murray, Pat's wife, has called on all concerned people and groups to take an interest in this case. As a first step she calls on representations to be made to the German Embassy. All correspondence to the prisoners in Germany should be addressed to: Olg Schloplatz, 29221 Celle, Germany.
[This is an abridged version of an article first printed in An Phoblacht (Republican News)
A legal litany
July 12, 1989: Donna Maguire and Leonard Hardy arrested at Rosslare, Ireland. Charged with possession of bomb-making equipment.
July 14, 1989: Pat Murray, Donncha O'Kane and Pauline Drumm arrested in France. Charged with explosives offences.
September 1989: German courts issue extradition warrants for Pat Murray, Donncha O'Kane, Pauline Drumm and Donna Maguire. The catch-all warrants alleged involvement in almost every IRA operation in Germany over the previous year. Most serious charges related to a bomb attack in Hanover in which a British soldier was killed.
February 1990: Donna Maguire acquitted in Dublin.
June 1990: Donna Maguire arrested in Belgium. Charged with membership of illegal organisation and illegal possession of arms. All charges were later dropped.
November 1990: Donna Maguire extradited to Holland. Charged along with Gerry Harte, Sean Hick and Paul Hughes with killing two Australian tourists in Roermond in 1990.
July 1991: Donna Maguire and her co-accused acquitted in Roermond. Gerry Harte goes free; the others are held on extradition warrants from Germany.
October 1991: Donna Maguire extradited from Holland to Germany to join Sean Hick and Paul Hughes.
August 1992: Pat Murray, Donncha O'Kane and Pauline Drumm extradited from France to Germany. Shortly after, all charges relating to Hanover were dropped.
April 1993: Start of trial of Pat Murray, Donncha O'Kane and Pauline Drumm on charges related to bombing of Osnabruck British army barracks.
June 1994: Donna Maguire acquitted in Dusseldorf on charges of bombing a British army base near Hanover in May 1990 and of involvement in the killing of a British major in Dortmund in June 1990. Sean Hick and Paul Hughes go free.
June 1994: Donna Maguire goes on trial for Osnabruck bombing.