Bloody Sunday soldiers' Northern Ireland transfer blocked by court
Three leading judges have blocked the arrest and transfer to Northern Ireland of former paratroopers who face questioning over whether they committed alleged criminal offences on Bloody Sunday.
The judges "unhesitatingly concluded" at London's High Court that there were no "reasonable grounds" for the fiercely-opposed move, and it would result in a risk to the men's safety.
Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas, Mr Justice Openshaw and Mrs Justice Carr rejected accusations that they were being invited to provide the men with "special treatment" which could hinder the probe into the deaths of 14 civil rights demonstrators in Londonderry 43 years ago.
The judges declared in a joint ruling that there was no reason why the seven ex-soldiers, whose identities are being protected, could not be interviewed in England and Wales, where they live.
They observed that the interviews were likely to be "short and straightforward" as all the men intended to "exercise their right to silence" in the interviews.
The judges unanimously ruled: "If interviewed in Northern Ireland they would not be able to return to their homes during the interview period, but would have to be detained for their own safety in conditions of close custody.
"Even if so detained, there would remain a risk to their safety."
The ruling was a victory for the seven - referred to as B, N, O, Q, R, U and V - in their legal challenge against the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), who wants them taken back to Northern Ireland for an investigation into whether criminal offences may have been committed by soldiers who used lethal force on Bloody Sunday in 1972.
The judges granted them an order prohibiting the PSNI from arresting them on their undertaking to attend interviews "to be carried out by the PSNI at a police station in England and Wales, or other acceptable location".
The judges rejected PSNI arguments that such an arrangement would be unwieldy and hinder its ability to exercise its statutory powers.
The judges said: "The PSNI further suggested that we are being invited by the claimants to provide special treatment to these claimants and submitted that we should not do so.
"We make it clear that we do no more than apply the correct legal test to the particular facts of this case."
Lawyers for the seven, who gave evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry (BSI) from the British mainland, argued there was a real danger that their lives would unnecessarily be put at risk if forced to travel to Northern Ireland.
Arresting and transporting them "for what can only be described as administrative convenience" would be "unlawful, irrational and disproportionate", said James Lewis QC at a one-day hearing in November.
Allowing their application for judicial review on Thursday, the High Court found they had co-operated with all previous proceedings and investigations at the time and in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, including Lord Widgery's inquiry in 1971 and the later Saville inquiry.
Documentation necessary for the new investigations was held in electronic format and could be put to the men at interview in England and Wales.
The PSNI practice of putting to witnesses original relevant documents was "outmoded and cannot form any justification for an arrest".
The judges also said the possibility of post-interview bail conditions being imposed did not justify the need for an arrest now.
The legal action follows the arrest of a former colleague of the men 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 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.