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How is pampering a human right? It's no wonder victims feel let down by system

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 24/08/2016

David Black
David Black

A man has been charged in New York with the shooting dead of an imam and his friend in the city earlier this month.

If convicted, he faces life without parole. In most people's eyes, that would be a just punishment.

Here, it rarely works that way. Life doesn't mean life and there's so much concern for the feelings of convicted prisoners that we're almost embarrassed to insist that spending time in jail should be hard.

No wonder victims and their families feel let down and abandoned.

Nothing highlights the gap between what most ordinary people hope happens when a suspect comes before the courts and what actually happens than the bail system.

What was intended as a sensible and humane compromise has increasingly become a farce, wide open to abuse.

The latest example is that of Damien McLaughlin.

He is currently out on bail after being charged with aiding and abetting in the murder of prison officer David Black, who was shot as he drove to work at Maghaberry in November 2012 by a group styling itself as "the IRA".

The Belfast Telegraph has learned that McLaughlin was given permission earlier this month to skip signing bail for three days so that he could attend a spa break at a luxury hotel in Co Fermanagh.

It would be laughable if the charges that he faced were not so grave. Occasionally, allowing individuals to alter the terms of their release for significant family events, such as funerals and births, is one thing - but spa breaks? Since when was pampering a fundamental human right?

What made it worse was that McLaughlin actually spent part of the first day of this relaxing mini-break at a republican anti-internment protest in west Belfast alongside two convicted terrorists, having previously acted as a steward at a dissident republican march in Coalisland on Easter Sunday while under stricter bail terms.

It must be a nuisance for McLaughlin to have to sign bail at all when he has such a busy social calendar.

McLaughlin is entitled to the same presumption of innocence as everyone else. Even so, one would imagine that a man out on bail on charges relating to terrorist activity would be keen to demonstrate his integrity as an upstanding citizen. Taking part in dissident republican circuses hardly ticks that box. In fact, some might say it looks very much like sticking two fingers up at those who relaxed his bail conditions.

Though why should he be worried? The system's worked for well for him so far. He was previously sentenced in 2011 after pleading guilty to possessing two rifles, a sawn-off shotgun and a large quantity of ammunition.

He was given a four-and-a-half-year sentence, but was actually released on probation later the same year. Even taking into account time spent on remand, that is hardly reassuring.

McLaughlin's release license was later revoked after the Parole Commission warned that "he poses a risk of harm to the public which can no longer be safely managed in the community".

Better late than never? Or a case of too little too late?

Here's a quaint, old-fashioned idea instead - why not just make prisoners serve the sentences that are handed down to them, rather than treating jail as a drop-in centre with a revolving door? Now, he's benefiting from that same leniency again. Being out on bail on murder-related charges is not a minor matter.

That previously convicted offenders, such as Damien McLaughlin, apparently treat it so lightly is making a mockery of everyone who's lost loved ones at the hands of terrorism - not to mention those who risk their lives every day to protect the community against a multitude of threats.

The security services have put on record their concern over the repeated bailing of terror suspects.

Is anyone even listening?

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