On-the-run terror suspect had previously been given light jail term

Damien Joseph McLaughlin, from Kilmascally Road, near Ardboe, pictured in 2011 outside Maghaberry Prison.

Damien Joseph McLaughlin, from Kilmascally Road, near Ardboe, pictured in 2011 outside Maghaberry Prison.

The suspect in the David Black murder plot had been released from jail mere months after pleading guilty in 2011 to offences involving a large firearms cache.

Damien Joseph McLaughlin, who was due to go on trial soon for aiding and abetting the murder of Mr Black in 2012 but has since absconded, had received a prison term in 2011 for major weapons offences but was at liberty again by the end of that year an examination by the News Letter has revealed.

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The very fact that McLaughlin, 40, of Kilmascally Road in the eastern side of rural Tyrone, was free at all is a “scandalous” indictment of the Province’s justice system, a Troubles victims’ campaigner has said.

Mr Black, a prison officer, was murdered in a motorway gun attack as he travlled to work in November 2012.

McLaughlin first appeared in court the following month in relation to the killing.

He denies helping to kill the prison officer.

His scheduled trial date is now just three weeks away, set for late February.

However, his whereabouts are unknown, since he disappeared whilst out on bail last year – an extraordinary scandal which the News Letter has been reporting on relentlessly ever since.

Today we examine the charges for which he had previously been convicted – and we reveal what sentences he could have got for those crimes.

Kenny Donaldson of the Troubles campaign group Innocent Victims United said that his 2011 case shows that a “radical” overhaul is needed of the guidelines around sentencing for serious terrorist offences.

It was several weeks before the PSNI noticed that McLaughlin had gone missing in November, despite the fact that he was supposed to be signing on with the police five times a week.The 2011 convictions of the absconded man, Damien McLaughlin, stem from a cache of weapons and munitions which was discovered somewhere in the west of the Province on September 22, 2009.

The haul was made up of: a Kriko rifle, a Ruger rifle, a shortened-barrel shotgun, two silencers, a magazine for the Ruger, 29 Remington .222 calibre bullets, and 50 rimfire .22 calibre bullets, and 55 hollow-point rifle bullets.

Hollow-point bullets are a particularly brutal form of ammunition, designed to expand once in a victim’s body.

McLaughlin pleaded guilty to firearms possession in suspicious circumstances, and to two charges of possessing articles for use in terrorism (namely, two sniper scopes).

All his guilty pleas were made on May 23, 2011.

Firearms possession in suspicious circumstances can carry a sentence of up to 10 years – of which five would be in jail, and five on licence.

Meanwhile possessing articles for use in terrorism can carry a sentence of up to 15 years – to which the same 50% licence rule would apply.

When someone is convicted of multiple charges in a single case, they are generally told to serve their sentences concurrently (all at once), not consecutively (one after the other).

Therefore it is possible that the toughest sentence in this case would realistically have been 15 years; half of it on licence.

On June 20, 2011, he was sentenced to a total term of four years and six months – half in custody, half on licence.

Nonetheless, he was free by the end of the year.

The DoJ refused to confirm when or why he was released that early, citing “data protection”.

However, it is likely that the reason for his release was due to time spent in custody prior to his conviction.

As to when he was freed, a hardline republican webpage (newryrepublican.blogspot.co.uk) states that it was December 23, 2011.

His release came despite having wrecked his cell during 2011 as part of a protest against jail conditions – an offence which earned him a suspended sentence in a September 2012 court case.

Kenny Donaldson said: “The charges for which Mr McLaughlin was found guilty were very serious, and for any court to hand him down a sentence of four years and six months, with 50% freedom on license in-built, is nothing short of scandalous.

“Just what sort of message is our criminal justice system sending out to those who would seek to bring death and destruction to our society?”

The PPS did not consider an appeal possible in the case (see below), and Mr Donaldson asked: “Surely there needs to be a radical overhaul of terrorism sentencing guidelines and appeal mechanisms in such cases?”

He added: “Until the criminal justice system is transformed to a system which is victim-centred, we and others will continue to demand overhaul.

“In matters concerning terrorism, Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system is perpetrator-centric and that is the scandal that our organisation and membership are focused upon this side of an election and the other side of an election.”

McLaughlin is innocent of all charges unless and until proven otherwise.

His history raises two issues, however, that are of the utmost public importance.

First, there is the question of the suitability of the 2011 prison terms.

Second, there is the matter of whether someone with such a history of serious dissident offences should have been granted bail by the courts, against the wishes of police and prosecutors, when charged with a serious later offence, that of aiding and abetting murder.

Then there is the wider question of whether or not anyone on such a serious terrorist charge should ever be granted bail, regardless of their personal history.

Ben Lowry: We cannot merely condemn dissident attacks after they happen – we must ask hard questions now

McLaughlin’s light jail term: Prosecutors ‘had no grounds to appeal it’