Landmark Ruling Stirs Britain
LONDON — SENIOR legal figures in Britain are demanding new safeguards to protect the rights of citizens charged with terrorist crimes. The issue has been highlighted by a landmark decision of the English Court of Appeal, which on Oct. 19 quashed life sentences on four Irish people after they had each served 15 years in jail.
The court decided that police had fabricated evidence in the case of a terrorist bombing in 1974 in the cities of Guildford and Woolwich, in which seven people were killed. An urgent judicial inquiry into the case has been ordered by Douglas Hurd, the home secretary. Mr. Hurd told the House of Commons: ``This is a very grave matter for all those who care about justice.''
Distinguished figures including Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Basil Hume, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, had campaigned for some years to secure the release of the Guildford Four.
Lord Scarman, a former Appeal Court judge and a campaign leader, said last week that the case underlined the urgent need for stronger safeguards of human rights in terrorist cases.
The four people released last week are expected to receive massive financial compensation for the years they spent in prison. Some police involved in the case are likely to face criminal charges.
Other terrorist cases in which similar accusations of police malpractice have been made are likely to be reopened in the light of the Guildford decision. A key element is the use of uncorroborated confessions as evidence against people accused of terrorist crimes. All four in the Guildford case had made confessions to police but later retracted them in court, saying the confessions had been extracted from them by the use of violence.
A group of Irishmen accused of another terrorist outrage a year after the Guildford bombing had claimed responsibility for it, but the court disregarded their claim.
Quashing the convictions of the Guildford Four has been described by Lord Devlin, a highly influential retired judge, as probably the most important British legal decision this century. Like Lord Scarman, he wants the laws of evidence in terrorist cases to be changed.
The two judges agree that the present system of appealing decisions of the criminal courts ought to be looked at again. The Guildford Four appealed their cases in 1977, but they were turned down.
Aside from its legal implications, the case is politically important. Relations between Britain and the Irish Republic have been strained for many years as a result of the imprisonment by English courts of Irish people accused of terrorist crimes.
Gerard Conlon, one of the prisoners released last week, spoke for many of his Irish countrymen when he said: ``If you're Irish and you're arrested for a terrorist offense, you don't stand a chance.''
A feature of police evidence in England in the 1970s was that officers frequently made notes of interviews with accused persons some time after the interviews had taken place. It was only when files in Guildford were examined in recent months that it was discovered that some officers had altered their notes.
There is likely also to be an important by-product of the decision: In the last few years, Conservative members of Parliament have campaigned to restore the death penalty in terrorist cases - a campaign with which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is known to sympathize.