The British government today promised new moves to prevent police interrogators from mistreating suspected terrorists in Northern Ireland.
Interrogations are to be monitored by closed-circuit television, suspects are to be given access to lawyers after being held for 48 hours, and the process for investigating brutality complaints and prosecuting guilty police officers will be improved, Northern Ireland Secretary Roy Mason told Parliament.
Mason said the government also would act soon on the rest of a long list of detailed recommendations made by a government-appointed committee on police interrogation in Northern Ireland, whose report was made public today.
The committee, headed by English judge Harry Bennett, concluded that some terrorist suspects had been physically mistreated by Ulster police interrogators and that much needs to be done to "protect prisoners against ill treatment [and] also protect police officers against false allegations of ill treatment."
The Bennett committee recommended that Royal Ulster Constabulary plainclothes detectives who question Irish Republican Army suspects be better trained and supervised. Interrogation, which has sometimes gone on around the clock, should be interrupted for meals during the day and sleep at night, the committee said.
The committee also recommended that police interrogators be prohibited from insulting prisoners, their families or religion, or threatening them with physical harm, or requiring them "to adopt or maintain any unnatural or humiliating posture" or "physically exhausting or demanding action."
Complaints of brutality must be dealt with more effectively, the committee said. It noted that no Ulster police officer had been successfully prosecuted or disciplined for mistreating suspects even though the courts, in civil suits, and the Bennett committee had found that a number of brutality complaints were justified.
"In acting on these recommendations," Mason told Parliament, "I believe we will make it so difficult for abuses to occur that we will have the most advanced [interrogation] system of its kind in the world.
"What we have to prove to the nation and the world abroad is that, as far as possible, ill treatment of prisoners cannot take place in Northern Ireland. When we do this, we can kill the IRA's propaganda campaign to discredit the Royal Ulster Constabulary."
The Bennett committee reported that the IRA, whose terrorist activities have been curbed significantly by the Ulster police and the British Army in recent years, has carried on "a coordinated and extensive campaign... to destroy the reputation of the police at home and abroad" with false allegations of brutality. It also noted the personal risks the Ulster police face in their work and the difficulty they have gathering evidence other than through confessions obtained under interrogation.
Examination of medical records and other evidence showed that many brutality complaints could not be substantiated, the committee said, noting that some injuries "were undoubtedly self-inflicted" by suspects seeking to have confessions they made to the police thrown out in court.
But the committee found evidence in other cases of injuries that "were not self-inflicted and were sustained during the period of detention" in a police interrogation center.
This conclusion, the committee said, "reinforces the concern" communicated to Northern Ireland authorities during the past two years by Ulster medical examiners who had found in their examinations of suspects after police questioning, evidence of "significant bruising, contusions and abrasions of the body,"... of hyper-extension and hyper-flexion of joints [especially of the wrist]... of tenderness associated with hair-pulling and persistent jabbing, of rupture of the eardrums and of increased mental agitation and excessive anxiety states."
The Bennett committee, which also included a noted university professor and a former chief inspector of the British police, was appointed to investigate Ulster police interrogation practices last year after Amnesty International detailed 78 cases of alleged brutality. Amnesty International said today it would study the Bennett report and discuss it with Mason.
Britain's National Council for Civil Liberties said the report "goes some way towards meeting criticisms of interrogation procedures, but these are limited steps toward... normal policing and the establishment of basic human rights in Northern Ireland."
Terrorist suspects should have the right to see a lawyer immediately, rather than after 48 hours, the Civil Liberties Council said, and police interrogations should be video-taped for outsiders to review rather than just monitored on closed-circuit by police officials.
The Civil Liberties Council and some members of Parliament also want changes made in British anti-terrorism laws that authorize the questioning of terrorist suspects for up to seven days without criminal charges being made and court convictions by judges sitting without juries in cases where confessions are the only evidence.
The Bennett report noted that of 3,000 suspected terrorists who were detained for questioning for more than four hours in Northern Ireland during a recent one-year period, 1,000 were eventually charged with crimes.