Belfast Telegraph

Bloody Sunday: Seven paratroopers want arrest prevention order so they can't be brought to Northern Ireland for police questioning

By Cathy Gordon and John Aston

Seven former paratroopers who are facing questioning over the Bloody Sunday shootings have asked judges in London to make an order preventing them from being arrested and brought to Northern Ireland for police interview.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas and two other judges, sitting at the High Court, were told by their QC that they were willing to give an "undertaking" to the court to "voluntarily attend for an interview under caution" in England and Wales in relation to events in 1972.

Today is the first public hearing of the judicial review action brought by the ex-soldiers against the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) - a case described by Lord Thomas as being one of "considerable interest" to the public.

James Lewis QC, for the men, told the judges: "At the heart of the application before the court today is that the defendant wishes to interview the claimants. We have no issue with that.

"He is entitled to do so, and we accept that. However, the defendant seeks to exercise his power of arrest in order to interview the claimants under caution in Northern Ireland."

Mr Lewis added: "He has already made a decision to arrest all the claimants, but he has undertaken not to put that into effect pending the challenge before this court. It is his decision to arrest for that purpose that we challenge."

Referring to the fact that the former paratroopers would co-operate by attending interviews held in England and Wales, Mr Lewis said: "Consequential upon that undertaking we would seek an order from this court prohibiting the defendant from arresting the claimants in order to interview them under caution in Northern Ireland."

At the centre of the case is the way the PSNI is conducting its historical probe into the deaths of 14 civil rights demonstrators in Londonderry.

The legal action being considered by the three judges was lodged with the High Court after the arrest of a former colleague in Northern Ireland - the first ex-soldier detained.

The arrest of the 66-year-old, who was held in Co Antrim and later released on police bail, was welcomed by relatives of those killed.

A petition calling for soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday to be granted immunity from prosecution has gained tens of thousands of supporters.

Thirteen people were killed by members of the Parachute Regiment on the day of the incident in Derry's Bogside. Another victim of the shootings died in hospital four months later.

Northern Ireland police launched the murder investigation in 2012. It was initiated after a Government-commissioned inquiry, undertaken by Lord Saville, found that none of the victims was posing a threat to soldiers when they were shot.

Following the publication of the Saville report in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for the Army's actions, branding them "unjustified and unjustifiable".

In September, the PSNI told bereaved families they intended to interview a number of former soldiers about their involvement on the day.

Lord Thomas described the case as "one of the most extraordinary cases in the annals of the common law".

Mr Lewis argued the intention to arrest, detain and transport the ex-soldiers to Northern Ireland when the interviews could be achieved voluntarily in England was "unlawful, irrational and disproportionate".

It exposed the men "to a real risk of danger to life", he added.

Mr Lewis argued it was unreasonable to arrest them "for what can only be described as administrative convenience".

The officer who ordered the arrests did not appear to have properly considered the proportionality of the move.

The QC highlighted the case on one of the ex-soldiers, referred to as "Soldier O", whose solicitors had provided evidence he had suffered a number of strokes which had left him paralysed down his right side so that he could only walk short distances with a walking stick and required a wheelchair for longer journeys.

Mr Lewis argued his circumstances had not been properly considered and it appeared the police had "an obsessive, mean-spirited intention to arrest at all costs".

Jonathan Hall QC, appearing for the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, told the court "that criminal investigations are unpleasant and unwelcome to those caught up in them but are necessary for the rule of law".

Lord Thomas said a highly relevant question for the court to consider was whether it was necessary for the interviews to take place in Northern Ireland when the ex-soldiers' solicitors had indicated they were intending to make "no comment" in any event.

Mr Hall said the court today could not say whether or not the men would say something "which materially advances the investigation".

He said the "dilemma" that arose was whether a case "unique in the annals of British legal history" should not be investigated in the normal way "because of the exceptional circumstances".

Mr Hall said: "Plainly the police would like to investigate and demonstrate they ought to be able to investigate a complicated and serious case of murder, or attempted murder, as they investigate any other offence of murder, or attempted murder.

"That involves interviewing at the location whether the investigations are being carried out."

For that purpose Parliament had given the PSNI power to make arrests in other jurisdictions of the United Kingdom.

Mr Hall submitted: "It is an extraordinary case to which ordinary principles ought to apply."

Later Mr Hall indicated that Soldier O would not be arrested before the PSNI had received medical reports relating to his fitness to travel to Northern Ireland.

If there were suggestions that he was unsuitable for arrest "suggested mechanisms for resolving the issue" could then be discussed.

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