Fears over reintroducing juries for terrorism trials

Amnesty International's definition of a 'political prisoner' conveyed 'no status whatsoever'  said a government official
Amnesty International's definition of a 'political prisoner' conveyed 'no status whatsoever' said a government official

Amnesty International objected to the use of non-jury Diplock courts in Northern Ireland – but a government official noted that if juries were reintroduced it could lead to more terrorist convictions being handed down.

Amnesty secretary general Thomas Hammarberg wrote to Secretary of State Jim Prior in December 1982 – the year after the seminal republican hunger strike – and raised prison conditions.

One section of his letter was highlighted by an official, with an exclamation mark placed in the margin: “By ‘political prisoner’ Amnesty International means anyone who is imprisoned where the motivation of the authorities appears to be political or where the acts or the motivation of the acts of the prisoner appear to be political. In Amnesty International’s usage the term ‘political prisoner’ conveys no status whatsoever.”

However, he said that Amnesty did not support the claim of prisoners that because their motivation was political they should be entitled to special treatment.

He repeatedly argued against the use of Diplock courts in trials of terror suspects, arguing that there were questions over whether such courts “accord with internationally recognised norms for a fair trial”.

But a November 1983 internal memo from Paul Coulson in the Law and Order Division said: “The argument in the [Amnesty] report that a judge sitting alone is likely to give undue weight to such [confession] statements is, of course, entirely specious.

“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind here that, even if juries could be found that were not subject to intimidation or bias, they would be so incensed at the nature of some of the crimes committed by the terrorists that they would not be overly discriminate in weighing the evidence against them.

“Some prosecutions of IRA terrorists in Great Britain, particularly in the aftermath of horrendous bombings, tend to bear out this hypothesis.”

That final comment may have been an allusion to the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, who had been convicted the previous decade in relation to IRA atrocities, but whose convictions were subsequently overturned in later years after the innocent men had spent many years in jail.