Ireland Debates Powers Of Police After Murder Of Anti-Mafia Journalist

In America, in the wake of the Unabomber and Oklahoma City bombing trials, people are looking ahead to the next great "trial by media," perhaps one that will involve the president.

In Ireland, meanwhile, a celebrated murder case has some commentators warning of a similar rush to judgment that may lead to a dangerous erosion of civil rights.

People still place flowers at the intersection on the outskirts of Dublin where award-winning crime journalist Veronica Guerin was gunned down 20 months ago. One person charged with conspiracy in the murder, Paul Ward, went on trial last month. But as the investigation brings defendants before the courts, it is also bringing questions from civil liberties advocates in the wake of a police crackdown initially aimed at underworld bosses.

Within six months of the killing, Ireland's Constitution was amended by referendum to allow restrictions on the right to bail. Police were given power to detain suspects for up to seven days without charge, in addition to what criminologist Paul O'Mahony calls "a significant curtailment of the right to silence for ... suspected drug dealers."

The right to silence is similar to the US Fifth Amendment right protecting against self-incrimination.

The Criminal Assets Bureau, a new police agency, was established and given authority to seize assets believed acquired through illegal activity.

One of the people it has targeted is John Gilligan, who is suspected of involvement in the Guerin murder and is fighting extradition from Britain. The agency has frozen more than $2 million in bank accounts in his name and seized property including an equestrian center near Dublin.

Legal representatives for Mr. Gilligan fear he will not receive a fair trial in Ireland, due to the extensive media coverage. They look to the case of Eugene Holland, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted late last year of marijuana possession.

During proceedings in the juryless trial, a police officer testified that she believed Mr. Holland "to be the man who shot Veronica Guerin." No further evidence was presented to support the claim, allowed because Irish law holds that judges, unlike juries, will not be prejudiced by the introduction of irrelevant facts.

Commentator and lawyer Vincent Browne describes the police information against Holland as "hearsay" likely to have come from "within the criminal fraternity." Mr. Browne believes such claims would not be enough to convict Holland of the murder, adding, "Neither is it enough to charge him with the murder, nor is it enough to justify the spate of media reports that he was the culprit."

Of Holland's prison term, Browne notes others "had received sentences of a fraction of 20 years for possession of [marijuana] of greater quantities."

In one instance, however, police tactics backfired. In 1996, police tipped off the media about a raid on the offices of a well-known Dublin legal firm representing a suspect in the Guerin case. In December, the Irish High Court awarded the firm 100,000 ($160,000) for damage to its reputation.

Public outcry over the police behavior never materialized. Most people welcome the new police powers. A recent poll found that 70 percent of those surveyed think the level of crime in Ireland has fallen, which it has.

O'Mahony says "any small amount of feeling to resist eroding civil liberties has simply faded away."

HE now sees little to prevent the Irish justice minister from proceeding with plans to reduce the right to silence for accused criminals. Such a stance will be taken as an indication of guilt in all court trials.

George Maybury of the police representative body AGSI supports the plan. He welcomes "any changes in the law which would allow the courts to be told about people who wouldn't account for their movements at the time of an alleged crime."

O'Mahony warns, however, that "the shifting of the balance in [the] Irish justice system against the accused now makes it only a matter of time [until] miscarriages of justice are making the media headlines."

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