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Judge throws out suspect's legal bid to gag newspaper

By Alan Erwin

Published 27/08/2015

Robert McAuley took action over newspaper reports
Robert McAuley took action over newspaper reports

A north Belfast man arrested over the murder of a suspected drug dealer has lost a High Court battle to stop a newspaper reporting on him.

Robert McAuley was seeking an injunction against Sunday World alleging he has been subjected to harassment.

But even though a judge agreed that Mr McAuley's life is under real and immediate risk, he held that the threat was unlikely to have been increased by Press coverage.

Deciding the public interest in publication outweighed Mr McAuley's privacy rights, Mr Justice Stephens lifted reporting restrictions and an anonymity order imposed in the case.

His verdict, delivered last month, could not be reported until it was confirmed yesterday that no appeal is to be lodged.

Mr McAuley was arrested, along with another suspect, days after Danny McKay was shot dead in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, in October 2012.

Gunmen blasted the 36-year-old to death at his Longlands estate home in a killing blamed on dissident republicans taking action against drug dealers.

Mr McAuley was subsequently released unconditionally and has never been charged in connection with the killing.

He was named in separate judicial review proceedings lodged back in 2012 over the length of time held in custody. In that case it was set out in open court how he was suspected of involvement in the murder, and may have had dissident links.

He launched fresh legal action after articles published by both Sunday World and Sunday Life. In one story he was described as "a dead man walking".

However, Mr Justice Stephens rejected claims that the coverage heightened the threat to his life or the risk of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

Ruling on the case, he identified two threat messages police delivered to Mr McAuley before any of the articles appeared.

The judge also said evidence of the plaintiff's alleged links to crime would explain the risk to his life.

Although Mr McAuley denies any criminal activity, his convictions in 2014 for dishonest offences were noted.

Mr Justice Stephens also described aspects of his evidence as being unreliable.

He stated: "The plaintiff has chosen not to provide any information to the court as to, for instance, how he earns a living, what his explanation was to the police in relation to the suspicion of his involvement in the murder of Daniel McKay, what he was doing on the day that Daniel McKay was murdered, and the attempts to distance himself from the allegations about his involvement in extorting money from drug dealers."

Even robust newspaper criticism did not amount to harassment, according to the judge.

Exceptional circumstances which justify sanctions and the restriction on the freedom of expression will be rare, he stressed.

Dismissing the injunction application, Mr Justice Stephens confirmed: "I do not consider it likely that at trial the plaintiff will be able to establish a material connection between the publication of the articles or the publication of his judgment and the risk to his life."

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