Monday, March 16, 2009

Remembering Giuseppe Conlon on St. Pat's Day

All I need to know about the war on terror I learned from "In the Name of the Father," the story of the Guilford Four.  After a pub bombing south of London in 1974, British police rounded up three men from Belfast and a young Englishwoman.  Under a 1973 anti-terror law, authorities held Gerry Conlon, Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill, and Carole Richardson for several days without charges or access to lawyers.

During those seven days, detectives beat, tortured, and coerced the Four to sign confessions.  Interrogators threatened to kill their family members.  They doctored statements to be signed by the detainees.  In a sham trial, false testimony by police and wrongfully withheld evidence secured convictions against the Four.  The judge sentenced them to life.  The government also pursued associates of the Four - The Maguire Seven - relatives and friends who allegedly provided material aid and bomb ingredients.  The Maguire Seven included Gerry's father, Giuseppe, and 42 year old, Anne Maguire.  Officials claimed that Anne supplied nitroglycerin to the IRA for bombs, a claim bolstered with shoddy forensics related to cleaning materials. 

In 1989 and 1990, the courts finally quashed all of the convictions.  In 2000, Prime Minister Tony Blair personally apologized for the gross miscarriage of justice.  The Pope honored Anne Maguire in 2005.  Giuseppe Conlon, Gerry's father, died in prison in 1980.  This is a good time to remember the abuses that led to the scapegoating and false imprisonment of the Guilford Four.

The European Court of Human Rights had ruled the Prevention of Terrorism Act to be in violation of Article Five of the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires suspects to be promptly brought before a judge.  But the British government refused to abandon its detention policy and countered the European Court's ruling by invoking Article 15's provision allowing countries to ignore the Convention on Human Rights "in time of war or other emergency threatening the life of the nation."

During the Troubles with Northern Ireland, the British government was under enormous pressure to secure convictions and stop the bombings.  Between 1971 and 1975, the Brits interned more than 2,000 people without charge or trial.  The Irish Republican Army used this oppression as an effective recruiting tool.

The 1973 Emergency Provisions Act created Diplock Courts that allowed judges to hear terrorist cases without juries.  Although the Guilford Four had a jury, the presiding judge remarked that he regretted the defendants were not charged with treason, punishable by death.

Violent extraction of confessions.  Indefinite detention.  Does any of this ring true?  Today, the next Giuseppe and Gerry Conlon sit in Guantanamo, awaiting a day in court that may never come.  While draconian anti-terror legislation promises to make us safer, it comes at a steep price.  Innocent people lose their lives and a country loses what it claims to stand for.  The Guilford Four, Maguire Seven, and the Birmingham Six are just a few of the examples of why the rule of law and protection of freedom must be paramount.  

Another lesson of the Guilford Four is that the courts did not free Gerry Conlon on their own initiative. Multiple appeals were denied.  It was a sustained peoples' campaign, led by Gerry's mother, that kept the case alive and helped expose the injustice of the convictions.

"You took away the sunshine and
you took away the rain
You stole away those youthful years
they'll never see again
You robbed them of their freedom
And you jailed them without a crime
You denied them of, their liberty
And you stole away their time.

           - Wolfe Tones, "The Guilford 4"