(This report covers the period January-December 1997)

Inquests into deaths in custody underlined the dangers of certain methods of restraint used by law enforcement officers. There were allegations of ill-treatment by police officers, and reports of human rights violations by the security forces during the "parade" season in Northern Ireland. Conditions in Special Security Units constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Armed political groups were responsible for human rights abuses.

In September multi-party talks aimed at a political settlement began in Northern Ireland. The inclusion of the Republican political party, Sinn Féin, in the talks followed a declaration by the Irish Republican Army (ira) of a second cessation of military activities in July. Prior to the cessation, the ira was responsible for a number of bomb attacks and the killing of three members of the security forces. The Continuity Army Council, a Republican armed group, claimed responsibility for several bombings. There were acts of violence by Loyalist armed groups despite the cease-fire. Divisions emerged among the Loyalists, resulting in the disbanding of the Combined Loyalist Military Command – which linked the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force – and in the creation of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (lvf), which was responsible for a number of attacks and killings

In October the new government, which was elected in May, published a bill setting out provisions for the incorporation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention) into national law

Inquests into deaths in custody in England revealed that certain methods of restraint used by law enforcement officers can lead to positional asphyxia. In January the inquest into the death of Kenneth Severin in Belmarsh Prison in November 1995 returned an "open verdict". The post-mortem stated that the most likely cause of death was positional asphyxia. The jury was told that Kenneth Severin died shortly after being forcibly held face down by prison officers. The officers denied applying a neckhold or placing their knees on his back, and kicking and punching him; they could not account for the bruises to his upper back and neck. In October an inquest jury ruled that Ibrahima Sey had been unlawfully killed while in police custody in March 1996. Ibrahima Sey had been handcuffed, sprayed in the face with cs gas, and then held face down for about 15 minutes by several police officers (see Amnesty International Report 1997). The coroner recommended an urgent review of police use of cs gas and warned chief constables of "grave public concerns" about methods of restraint and the dangers of positional asphyxia. In December an inquest jury ruled that Dennis Stevens' death in Dartmoor Prison in October 1995 was accidental (see Amnesty International Report 1996).

The decisions of the Director of Public Prosecutions (dpp) not to prosecute police officers involved in the deaths in custody of Shiji Lapite and Richard O'Brien (see Amnesty International Reports 1996 and 1997) were challenged in the High Court in July. The dpp admitted that the decision-making process had been flawed and agreed to review those decisions

The Police Complaints Authority also stated that its handling of the Shiji Lapite case was "flawed" and that it would reinvestigate. In addition, the Attorney General initiated an independent inquiry into the handling by the prosecution authorities of serious complaints against the police, including cases of death in custody

In England damages were awarded to many people for ill-treatment by police officers. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture sent a delegation to the United Kingdom (uk) in September to examine, among other matters, legal remedies in cases involving allegations of ill-treatment by police officers.

During 1997, a large volume of evidence emerged concerning the 1972 Widgery Inquiry into the killing of 13 unarmed people and the wounding of 15 others by British soldiers in Northern Ireland on 31 January 1972 (known as "Bloody Sunday"). The evidence showed that the findings of the inquiry had been seriously flawed. By the end of the year, the government had not made a decision on whether to institute a new inquiry.

Internal inquiries were initiated by the police into several incidents in Northern Ireland involving undercover members of the security forces. In March Gareth Doris was shot and wounded by undercover soldiers shortly after an explosion at a police station in Coalisland. Eye-witnesses alleged that no warning was given before he was shot. He was unarmed. Also in March, masked men, later identified as undercover police officers, reportedly attacked staff and customers in the Derryhirk Inn in Aghagallon near Lurgan; 93 complaints were lodged about the officers' conduct

There were continued reports of ill-treatment by the security forces in Northern Ireland. The report of an independent review of police complaints procedures in Northern Ireland, published in January, recommended the appointment of a Police Ombudsman to investigate complaints using a staff of independent investigators. The recommendations were incorporated into a police bill which was proposed in December.

In October the installation of video-recording cameras began in the three special interrogation centres in Northern Ireland where suspects arrested under emergency legislation are questioned, and an amended emergency provisions bill was issued proposing that audio-recording should also be installed. The UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers visited the uk in October to investigate the effects of emergency legislation on lawyers' ability to practise in Northern Ireland, including complaints about police intimidation of lawyers.

Reports were received indicating a continued lack of even-handed policing in Northern Ireland (see Amnesty International Report 1997). Robert Hamill, a Catholic, died in May, 11 days after being severely beaten by a large crowd of Protestants in Portadown. Relatives who were with him claimed that Royal Ulster Constabulary (ruc) officers sitting in a parked vehicle at the scene of the beating had not intervened to protect them, despite requests.

During the parades in Northern Ireland in July and August, the security forces fired a large number of plastic bullets, at times indiscriminately, at protesters. Fourteen-year-old Gary Lawlor was in a coma for several days after being hit by a plastic bullet in West Belfast and 13-year-old Maire Walsh, who was standing next to him, was injured in the mouth. It was also reported that the security forces beat and kicked peaceful protesters, resulting in many injuries. Some 200 civil actions were lodged concerning the security forces' conduct in policing a parade in Garvaghy Road, Portadown.

Large stocks of plastic bullets were withdrawn twice during the year, because of faults in their velocity and weight. The publication in August of guidelines on the use of plastic bullets revealed that the ruc guidelines were less stringent than those of the British Army and of police forces in the rest of the uk. A review of the guidelines was initiated by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Independent medical reports indicated that conditions in Special Security Units, where "exceptional escape risk" Category a prisoners are held, led to a serious deterioration of prisoners' physical and psychological health. In January a trial judge refused to send six prisoners, charged with attempted escape from a maximum security prison in England, for retrial on the grounds that "medical evidence suggests five of the defendants have deteriorated mentally" after being held in such units for lengthy periods of time.

Róisín McAliskey, who was four months pregnant at the time of her arrest in November 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997), continued to be held in custody pending extradition to Germany for questioning about an ira attack on an army base. As a Category a prisoner, she was subjected to frequent strip-searches, "closed visits" and severe restrictions throughout her pregnancy on her rights to associate with other prisoners and to exercise. Some restrictions were eased towards the end of her pregnancy, and she gave birth in May in a civilian hospital. She was subsequently transferred on bail to a mother-and-baby secure unit in a London hospital because of her medical condition.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons published thematic reports which were critical of prison conditions for women and young offenders.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission, an independent body responsible for reviewing alleged miscarriages of justice, began work in March. In August the Commission referred the case of Danny McNamee to the Court of Appeal. Danny McNamee had been convicted in 1987 of a bomb attack in London and sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment, solely on the basis of forensic evidence which was reportedly subsequently discredited.

The convictions of four men (known as the "Bridgewater Four") for the murder of 13-year-old Carl Bridgewater in 1978 were quashed in July. Three had been released in February on bail after 17 years' imprisonment; the fourth had died in prison in 1981. The Appeal Court was told that the police had falsified one suspect's confession and then applied undue pressure, including ill-treatment, on another to force a confession.

Patrick Kane was released in June after the Court of Appeal quashed his 1990 conviction in connection with the murder of two army corporals. The convictions of his co-defendants, Sean Kelly and Michael Timmons, had still not been reviewed by the end of the year (see Amnesty International Report 1994).

In December the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction of Christopher Sheals for murder in connection with the killing of Margaret Wright, but upheld other convictions. Margaret Wright had been beaten and shot dead in 1994 by a group of men in a hall which displayed insignia of the Red Hand Commando, a Loyalist armed group. The Court rejected the "common purpose" basis for his conviction.

Colin Duffy, whose conviction for murder was quashed by the Court of Appeal in September 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997), claimed that he continued to be subjected to systematic harassment by the security forces. In June he was charged with the murder of two police officers and detained until October, despite the existence of detailed alibi evidence. In November he was charged with grievous bodily harm of a police officer, although witnesses to the incident stated that Colin Duffy and others had in fact been ill-treated by the police; he was released on bail.

Nineteen people were killed by members of armed political groups in Northern Ireland; 14 deaths were attributed to Loyalists, three to the ira, and two to the Irish National Liberation Army (inla). In March John Slane, a Catholic, died after being shot in his home by Loyalists. Sean Brown, a Catholic, was abducted by Loyalists and shot in the head in May. Bernadette Martin, an 18-year-old Catholic, was shot dead by Loyalists at her Protestant boyfriend's house in July. In the same month 16-year-old James Morgan, a Catholic, was found dead. He had been killed by Loyalists and his body mutilated. In December the inla shot dead Billy Wright, a leader of the lvf, in the Maze prison. The lvf subsequently attacked two bars, killing Seamus Dillon and Eddie Treanor, both Catholics, and wounding eight other people

Some people died as a result of "punishment" beatings and shootings. Among those allegedly killed by Loyalists were David Templeton, a Presbyterian minister, and Robert Bates, a former Loyalist prisoner. Armed groups were responsible for 150 "punishment" shootings and at least 72 "punishment" beatings of members of their own communities in Northern Ireland. In February, 16-year-old Judith Boylan was tied to a lamp post, beaten, and threatened with an iron bar; her attackers, allegedly members of the ira, then threw paint on her and hacked off her hair. Sean McNally was shot at close range through the knee by alleged ira members in June; his right leg had to be amputated at the knee.

In June Amnesty International published a report, United Kingdom: An agenda for human rights protection. In October Amnesty International welcomed the government's decision to incorporate the European Convention into national law as a first step towards implementing a much broader range of international obligations. The organization called on the government to ensure that human rights protection would be effective by, among other things, establishing an independent Human Rights Commission

Amnesty International sent observers to court hearings in connection with the deaths in custody of Shiji Lapite and Richard O'Brien and to the inquests of Ibrahima Sey and Alex Patterson, killed by undercover soldiers in Northern Ireland in 1990. Amnesty International observers attended appeal hearings in other cases in England and Northern Ireland in which the organization had concerns about unfair trial procedures.

Amnesty International repeatedly urged the government to quash the findings of the 1972 Widgery Tribunal and to establish an immediate and full inquiry into the events of "Bloody Sunday". The organization continued to urge the government to investigate the circumstances of the killing of Diarmuid O'Neill in September 1996 (see Amnesty International Report 1997).

Amnesty International sent an observer to monitor the policing of some of the parades in Northern Ireland in July.

In March Amnesty International published United Kingdom: Special Security Units – cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which urged the government to carry out a review of the treatment of Category a prisoners; and in April United Kingdom: Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – detention of Róisín McAliskey.      

Throughout the year, Amnesty International was concerned at reports of human rights abuses by armed political groups in Northern Ireland

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