'Supergrass' case witnesses probed
Prosecutors are to examine whether two terrorists who turned state's witness in a so-called "supergrass" trial breached the terms of their deal.
Twelve men accused of a litany of terror charges, including the murder of a loyalist paramilitary chief, walked free from Belfast Crown Court after a judge damned the testimony of brothers Robert and Ian Stewart as "infected with lies".
The self-confessed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) members agreed to give evidence against the defendants in return for significantly reduced jail terms for admitting their own UVF crimes.
But after a trial estimated to have cost the taxpayer £10 million, leading north Belfast loyalist Mark Haddock and eight others were found not guilty of the UVF murder of Ulster Defence Association chief Tommy English 12 years ago, while three co-accused were acquitted of lesser charges. English, 40, was gunned down in his house in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, in front of his wife and three young children on Halloween night in 2000.
Delivering his verdict in the non-jury trial, Mr Justice John Gillen offered a withering assessment of the brothers' evidence, accusing them of lying to police and the court. The deal the Stewarts struck with prosecutors required them to tell the truth at all times.
A spokeswoman from the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said officials would examine the evidence to see if the brothers had knowingly lied. As the brothers were on the stand for a total of 56 days, that exercise could take some months.
One defendant, Neil Pollock, 36, from Fortwilliam Gardens in Belfast, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and possessing an item intended for terrorism - namely a sledgehammer - but crucially, those convictions did not rely on the word of the Stewart brothers.
North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds said "serious questions" needed to be asked of the PPS. "It is perfectly clear from the judgment that this case should never have proceeded," he said. But the PPS has defended the decision to prosecute. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) also insisted it would continue to make use of "accomplice evidence". A police spokesman said last night: "PSNI will continue to deploy it as a mechanism for investigating serious and organised crime and terrorism and bringing offenders before the courts."
The case has been highly controversial, with supporters of the accused likening it to high profile "supergrass" trials in the 1980s, which saw both loyalist and republican paramilitaries jailed on the evidence of former colleagues who turned state's evidence. Supporters of the acquitted men made clear their fierce opposition to the practice outside court yesterday.
Raymond Laverty from support group Families Against Supergrass Trials (FAST) said: "It is regrettable that the use of uncorroborated, unsupportive supergrasses is re-emerging in this jurisdiction when one considers that throughout such show trials in the past the evidence provided by the supergrass has been demonstrated to be unreliable, dishonest, contaminated, collusive and not worthy of belief. There remain serious concerns about the supergrass process."