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Judgment reserved in Hooded Men trial as court told torture claims 'modified' by minister

By Alan Erwin

A former British government minister who alleged predecessors had authorised torture in Northern Ireland, later corrected his assessment, the High Court heard yesterday.

The claim made by Merlyn Rees in a newly discovered memo is at the centre of a legal case taken on behalf of 14 men interned in 1971.

But counsel for the Government said that within weeks his assessment of their treatment was "modified" to having faced deep interrogation.

The group, known as the Hooded Men, allege they were subjected to five torture techniques sanctioned by the British state.

Surviving members are taking action in a bid to secure an independent and human rights-compliant investigation into their treatment.

Judgment was reserved following a four-day hearing in Belfast.

Proceedings have been issued against the Chief Constable, Secretary of State and the Department of Justice.

The court heard that in 1977 Mr Rees, then Home Secretary, sent a letter to Prime Minister James Callaghan setting out his views on procedures deployed against the men.

In the memorandum he states that it was his view that "the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971/72 was taken by ministers - in particular Lord Carrington, then Secretary of State for Defence".

The document, uncovered from the national archives in London, featured in an RTE documentary in 2014 and led to questions being raised at the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

However, Tony McGleenan QC argued yesterday that Mr Rees later amended his position.

"The suggestion that Lord Carrington authorised torture in 1971/72 is one that was properly corrected to suggest there was unauthorised interrogation in depth," he said.

The men were hooded and flown by helicopter to a secret location, later revealed as an Army camp at Ballykelly, Co Derry.

During interrogation they were said to have been subjected to being placed in stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and water, along with alleged beatings.

One of the detainees said his treatment was so severe that he suffered hallucinations and prayed for death.

A challenge has also been brought by the daughter of Sean McKenna, a school caretaker taken from his Newry home in August 1971.

Mary McKenna claimed her father was bitten by a soldier's dog and had to drink from the animal's dish in treatment that "ruined" him and worsened a heart condition that led to his death four years later.

In 1978, the European Court of Human Rights held that the men suffered inhumane and degrading treatment that was not torture.

That finding, Mr McGleenan contended, helped to render the group's challenge unsustainable.

"There's no more authoritative organ on the topic than the European Court of Human Rights," he stressed.

The barrister also argued that the 1998 Human Rights Act has no retrospective powers - creating a "profound" obstacle for a case based on alleged treatment nearly two decades before it came into force.

Following closing submissions Mr Justice Maguire pledged to consider all issues raised before giving his judgment at a later stage.

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