The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has ruled that the UK's repeated failure to investigate the army killing of two IRA leaders and the allegedly fatal police beating of a Northern Ireland man amounted to a breach of human rights.

According to the Guardian the decisions are highly critical of the UK's failure to carry out full inquiries into the high-profile deaths during the Troubles.

Martin McCaughey and Desmond Drew, both prominent IRA members, were shot dead by the SAS near Loughgall, County Armagh, in October 1990.

The building they were shot in had been under surveillance by Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers because it was a suspected arms dump. When shot the two IRA men had reportedly been carrying AK-47 rifles but they had not opened fire. Their deaths reinforced allegations at the time that the authorities were operating a shoot-to-kill policy.

In their judgment, the Strasbourg judges claimed there had been 'inordinately long periods of inactivity during which some disclosure was made' by the police, much of which was 'later shown to have been inadequate.'

The judgment added: 'These delays cannot be regarded as compatible with the state's obligation under article 2 (the right to life) to ensure the effectiveness of investigations into suspicious deaths.'

The other Northern Ireland case, which attracted similar criticism from the judges, related to the death of John Hemsworth in Belfast. Hemsworth had been walking home in July 1997 when he was passed by a group of people being chased by RUC officers. Hemsworth was reportedly hit in the face by a truncheon and kicked on the ground by officers. He suffered a fractured jawbone. Thereafter his health deteriorated and he subsequently died of a brain haemorrhage.

The judges in Strasbourg said long delays in the investigation into Hemsworth's death amounted to a breach of his right to life 'by reason of excessive investigative delay.'

Drew and McCaughey's families also reportedly complained that the killings of their family members were a breach of their right to life, but the court said these claims were inadmissible on the grounds that they were 'premature,' because of the domestic remedies having not yet been exhausted in the UK courts.

In a concurring opinion, Paul Mahoney, the British judge at the court, acknowledged that describing a legal claim issued more than two decades after the killings as 'premature' might seem unusual.

'It may doubtless appear somewhat anomalous that, 23 years after the deaths of the applicants' relatives, the applicants' substantive complaints and most of their procedural complaints under the European convention's right-to-life clause can be legally characterised as 'premature'," he said.

'However, the position is so precisely because the innumerable and excessive delays in the inquest proceedings prevented the investigative process from beginning promptly and from being carried out with reasonable expedition.'

The judgments condemned the UK government's failure to investigate large numbers of sensitive killings from the Troubles.

'The fact that it was necessary to postpone the inquest so frequently and for such long periods pending clarifying litigation demonstrates that the inquest process itself was not structurally capable at the relevant time of providing the applicants with access to an effective investigation which would commence promptly and be conducted with due expedition,' the judges said.

Hemsworth's family was awarded $26,000 in compensation. The McCaughey and Drew families will receive $18,000 and $14,000 respectively.