During the Troubles, hundreds of men and women were convicted of terrorist activities on the basis of convictions that in many cases were beaten out of them in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Among them were children as young as 14 and 16 who were tortured for days on end.
The Diplock court system allowed for convictions on the basis of confessions only, and non jury trials.A pervasive culture of forcing confessions to win convictions has now been revealed by a Guardian newspaper investigation
The Guardian report probes the outcome of The Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates possible miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland,. The commission to date overturned 24 convictions in Northern Ireland and it says that it has received applications from 200 people who claim torture while in custody during the Troubles.
According to officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC,) interviewed by the Guardian the torture began after the establishment of the Diplock Courts in 1973, a system of non-jury courts named after Lord Diplock. The courts treated terrorist offences as criminal rather than political, and with the case heard in front of a judge rather than a jury, a confession alone could secure a conviction.
According to The Guardian newspaper, Charlie McMenamin, from Derry, was 16 when he was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder of a police officer. He had neither an adult nor a solicitor present, but he claims he was beaten, slapped, kicked while on the ground, and threatened. Some of his hair had been ripped out, a contemporary medical report showed. He was entirely innocent and was 75 miles away from the location of the police officer’s murder at the time and the director of public prosecutions recognized this at the time and recommended the case be dropped.
It wasn’t and he was induced to plead guilty – by his solicitor and by the constant abuse by police officers – and was sentenced to a period in jail. The ordeal was so stressful that McMenamin removed a screw from a radiator in his cell and attempted to cut his wrist with it. He says that officers simply laughed at him when they found out.
Perhaps the most tragic case revealed by The Guardian is that of Robert Hindes and Hugh Hanna, who were only 14 and 16 when they were arrested in October 1976.
Hindes was taken into custody and questioned about the murder a few weeks earlier of Peter Johnston, 28, a Catholic accountant who was killed by loyalist gunmen at his home in north Belfast.
Within hours after being tortured and beaten he confessed, and named his accomplice as a Robert Hanna. Hanna was arrested and also confessed.
Both served nine years behind bars.
In their confessions, they said they forced open Johnston's front door a little after 11pm, went upstairs and shot him from his bedroom door as he lay on his bed.
But they confessed before the police pathologist had finished his report, which said Johnston was beaten for 30 minutes before he was killed and that the time of death was 3am.
On the actual night of the murder, according to Hanna's father, he kept his son at home because he had been threatened because he had befriended some catholics.
These youths later beat him up and he was three weeks in hospital recovering.
The appeal court also was told that when Hindes "confessed" that his accomplice was a Robert Hanna, he had been referring to a different boy of the same name.
Three decades later, both convictions were overturned. A few hours before their appeal began, Hanna hanged himself at his home in Northamptonshire.
Eamonn McDermott, also interviewed by The Guardian, was arrested in 1977 for questioning over another police murder. He was 19 at the time and about to enter university. After two days of beating he signed the confession, and when he claimed in court that he had only signed it to stop the beatings, the judge ignored him. He was jailed for life and served 15 years, before beginning life again as a journalist upon his release. He is now editor of the Derry Journal.