Belfast Telegraph

Lessons falling on deaf ears of the punishment-hungry

By Eamonn McCann

In the event that the Court of Appeal quashes Mr Holden's conviction, both he and his family are grateful that they are dealing with an appeal hearing and not a posthumous pardon."

So says Patricia Coyle, of the law firm Harte Coyle Collins, which handled Liam Holden's appeal against his conviction and death sentence for the murder of a soldier in Belfast in 1972. The case is scheduled to come before the Court of Appeal today.

Research in relation to the case reveals material, both historical and contemporary, to do with wider issues, global as well as local, which deserve attention.

The information suggests that, had the matter been left to local politicians - specifically unionist politicians - the death penalty here would not have been abolished: if they had had their way, Liam Holden would have gone to the gallows.

The decision to abolish the ultimate punishment was taken by Secretary of State William Whitelaw and endorsed at Westminster in July 1973.

But an apparent majority of unionist representatives appears to remain unconvinced that it was the right decision to bring local law into line with British and European practice.

Three years after the Holden case, in 1976, the DUP published a pamphlet by its then-secretary, Peter Robinson, calling for the change introduced three years earlier by Whitelaw to be reversed.

Basing his argument on his interpretation of Christian tradition, the future First Minister denounced "humanitarians" who "refuse to live up to their responsibilities" by putting secular reason ahead of Biblical teaching. He did address the Sixth Commandment - 'Thou shalt not kill' - with the observation that "a state whose law operates on the principles of forgiveness and love would invite its own destruction".

In July 1983, the Northern Ireland Assembly - which nationalists were boycotting at the time - voted by 35 to 11 to reintroduce the death penalty for 'terrorist' murders, such as the killing for which Mr Holden had been convicted - of Private Frank Bell of the Parachute Regiment.

In November last year, five DUP MPs - David Simpson, Sammy Wilson, Jim Shannon, Gregory Campbell and Jeffrey Donaldson - put down an Early Day Motion in the Commons calling for reconsideration of the death penalty across the UK.

David Simpson explained the thinking: "The key thing in establishing any sentence for any crime is whether or not the punishment fits the crime ... There are some crimes that are so grievous and aggravated and are of such a magnitude that the only fitting, due, proper and proportionate response is to hand down the death penalty."

Again, the killing of the 18-year-old soldier would have fallen squarely into this category. Included in the material submitted by Harte Coyle Collins in support of the Holden appeal was a minute of the proceedings of the US Senate's armed services committee in June 2008 examining the use of 'aggressive' interrogation techniques, including water-boarding.

Telling testimony came from Dr Jerald Ogrisseg - survival, evasion, resistance and escape psychologist for the US Air Force's survival school - who had monitored training programmes for equipping American soldiers to resist interrogation.

Ogrisseg described his observation, in July 2002, of the use of waterboarding in the resistance training of candidates for the Navy Seals - the famously tough and resilient unit which carried out the raid on Abbottabad in Pakistan in May last year in which Osama bin Laden was killed.

"The Navy was applying it to medically-screened trainees with medical personnel immediately available to monitor and intervene if necessary.

"However, that wasn't the point, as psychologically the waterboard produced capitulation and compliance with instructor demand 100% of the time ... Students expressed extreme avoidance attitudes such as a likelihood to further comply with any demands made of them if brought near the waterboard again."

Patricia Coyle comments: "One can only imagine the impact of such an interrogation technique on an 18-year-old chef from Ballymurphy in 1972."

Waterboarding, said Ogrisseg, produced not truth-telling but "learned helplessness". He had set out this conclusion in a memorandum to top US military commanders in July 2002 - prior to the invasion of Iraq and at an early stage of the 'war on terror'. As subsequent events were to show, his findings were ignored.

Likewise, the lessons of the Holden case continue to be ignored by senior politicians here, raising a suspicion, to put it no more highly, that what drives the views of the advocates of no-holds-barred methods of combating 'terrorism' is not truth, or justice, but a blind desire to punish.

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