Second report to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions concerning the death of Robert Hamill
British Irish Rights Watch | 05 May 1998
Since our first submission to the United Nations concerning the death of Robert Hamill, sent to the Special Rapporteur on 28th August 1997, there have been a number of developments, as follows.
Post mortem results
The report of the post mortem carried out by state pathologist Jack Crane on 9th May 1997 is now available. It shows that Robert Hamill died of a diffuse brain injury, associated with a hairline skull fracture, and that his death was due to blows to his head.
There is no mention of the hypoxia (oxygen starvation) which hospital staff hypothesised might have contributed to his failure to regain consciousness. However, an eyewitness, said that at the time of the attack his breathing was intermittent and his airway was restricted. Giving evidence at the committal proceedings of Paul Hobson on 22nd April 1998, Police Constable Alan Neill described Robert Hamill's breathing as "very raspy and shallow". It seems to us that the possibility that failure to give Robert Hamill prompt medical attention at the scene of the attack may have contributed to his death cannot be definitively ruled out at this stage.
What is quite clear from the post mortem report is that Robert Hamill's brain injuries were caused by repeated blows to his head. Had the RUC officers present intervened in order to protect him, he might be alive today.
No inquest into Robert Hamill's death has yet been held, nor any date set for it.
Prosecutions of alleged perpetrators
In our first submission, we reported that six people had been arrested and charged with murder. On 31st October 1997 charges against three of the accused - Allister Hanvey, Dean Forbes and Rory Robinson - were dropped. The magistrate who released them expressed his sympathy with the defendants for the ordeal they had undergone, but did not extend any sympathy to Robert Hamill's family. On 19th November 1997 the charges against two more of the defendants - Wayne Lunt and Stacey Bridgett - were also being dropped. In a letter to British Irish rights watch from the Director of Public Prosecutions dated 25th March 1998 he said that the charges against these five men had been dropped because "the evidence available was insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction for murder." At the hearing at which these men were released, three or four RUC officers stood in front of the Hamill family, blocking their view of the proceedings, as if to suggest that they might attack the former defendants.
Only one defendant remains, Paul Hobson. Committal proceedings against him were heard in Craigavon Magistrates Court on 22nd April 1998 by Resident Magistrate Nixon, who found that there was a prima facie case against Paul Hobson and returned him for trial.
The hearing was attended by an independent observer, Paul Mageean, who is the Legal Officer of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, a respected human rights group based in Belfast.
A number of concerns arise from this hearing. It appears that the RUC are continuing to allege that a fight broke out between two factions in the town centre, one group (presumably loyalists) being about 30 - 40 strong and the other (presumably Catholics) made up of 8 - 10 people. This is despite the series of press releases put out by the RUC at the time, which are set out in full in our previous submission, and which show that, although the RUC originally alleged that there had been a fight between two factions, ultimately they conceded that four people (Robert Hamill and his three companions, two of whom were women) were set upon by a large crowd in an unprovoked attack. In a letter written to the Committee on the Administration of Justice on 28th January, Chief Superintendent G W Sillery, writing on behalf of the Chief Constable, said:
"The initial press release was issued at 0600 hours on the morning of the incident (27 April 1997). The information was obtained from local police, whose perception at that time was that 'two rival factions' were involved. As a result of the ensuing investigation, events surrounding the incident had become clearer, therefore the opportunity was taken to update the press and clarify matters reported previously. An appeal for witnesses to come forward was also made. There was never any attempt by police to be duplicitous in the release of the various press statements."
RUC Constable Alan Neill, under questioning by Paul Hobson's solicitor, Richard Monteith, testified that he remained on duty in the town centre after the attack on Robert Hamill until around 4:00 am. He then went off duty, without having made any statement about the incident. He was recalled to duty only three hours later, at 7:00 am, for the purpose of making a statement. In our experience, it is unusual for a police officer to be relieved of duty before having made a statement about any serious incident that occurred while s/he was on duty. At 7:00 am Constable Neill went to Edward Street RUC station where a detective, possibly DC Keith, asked him to make a statement. Also present were Reserve Constables Cornett and Sharpe, who had been in the landrover with Constable Neill, and other RUC officers who had become involved in the incident. A few days later, Constable Neill was further interviewed about the incident by Detective Sergeant Lawlor. When the series of press releases given out by the RUC is examined, the first three can be seen to be developing the RUC's version of events:
27.4.1997: Two youths have been detained in hospital with head injuries following a clash between rival factions in Portadown around 1.45am this morning. Police moved in to separate the groups who encountered each other at the junction of Thomas Street and Market Street. Bottles were thrown during the hostilities and police themselves came under attack by a section of the crowd. Order was restored around 3am.
27.4.1997: One of the youths injured is still detained in hospital. Police in Portadown are anxious to speak to anyone who was in the area of Market Street/Woodhouse Street and Thomas Street between 1am and 2am this morning and who witnessed this incident.
30.4.1997: A police land rover crew in Portadown town centre were alerted to a disturbance and immediately intervened to gain order and prevent assaults. The numbers involved, however, were such that these officers were unable to contain the situation and became themselves the subject of attack. Police reinforcement arrived and calm was restored...
Constable Neill's evidence apparently explains how this story was evolved. This gives rather a different picture from that painted by Chief Superintendent Sillery.
The evidence in chief given at the hearing by Constable Neill was vague and confused. He alleged that a man had accused the RUC officers in the police landrover of having sat and watched something happening but done nothing about it, but said that he did not know what the incident was that they were supposed to have ignored. He then goes on, however, to give an account of the attack on Robert Hamill. As set out in our first submission, this was the incident that Robert Hamill's companions accused the RUC officers of having ignored.
The evidence he gave against Paul Hobson amounted to Constable Neill's having seen Hobson aim a kick at Robert Hamill, although he could not say whether the blow connected. Although Hobson was committed for trial, it does not sound on this evidence as if a murder charge will be brought home against him when his case comes to trial.
Political allegiance of the alleged perpetrators
British Irish rights watch has been told that Paul Hobson and at least two of his former co-defendants, Lunt and Bridgett, asked to be housed in the wing at the Maze prison that is allotted to the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), a renegade group of loyalists who broke away form the loyalist ceasefire in Northern Ireland.
We have also been shown a photocopy of an LVF leaflet called Leading the Way, dated October (presumably 1997), which was sold on the streets of Portadown by LVF supporters in October last year. Half a page in this leaflet reads as follows:
THE PORTADOWN SIX
WE WOULD LIKE TO TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO WISH YOU ALL SUCCESS IN YOUR TRIAL.
EVERYONE OF US KNOW THAT THE CHARGES AGAINST YOU ARE OUTRAGEOUS, AND ANYONE OF US COULD BE SITTING IN YOUR PLACE. YOU HAVE BEEN CRIMINALIZED FOR DEFENDING YOURSELVES AGAINST AN UNPROVOKED ATTACK.
THERE HAVE BEEN MANY NATIONALIST ATTACKS UPON THE ORDINARY PROTESTANT PEOPLE OF PORTADOWN AT THAT SAME FLASHPOINT WHERE TAIGS [Catholics] WHERE [wear] A DIFFERENT FACE AT NIGHT.
YOU HAVE OUR FULL SUPPORT AND BEST WISHES AND WE HOPE TO SEE YOU HOME SOON.
The "Portadown Six" referred to are the six men originally charged with Robert Hamill's murder.
Lack of disciplinary action against RUC officers
According to Constable Neill's testimony, there were four RUC officers present in the landrover when Robert Hamill was attacked:
Constable Andrew Neill,
Reserve Constable Atkinson,
Reserve Constable Cornett,
Reserve Constable Sharpe, who is believed to be female.
According to eyewitness accounts given to the Committee on the Administration of Justice by Robert Hamill's companions, these RUC officers made no attempt to come to Robert Hamill's aid and did not alight from their landrover until an ambulance arrived after the attack.
None of the RUC officers involved has been suspended from duty. To the best of our knowledge, no disciplinary action has been taken against any of them to date, nor is any disciplinary action under contemplation.
Support from Irish Government
On 30th April 1998 the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, David Andrews, met the Hamill family. After the meeting, he issued a press release in which he confirmed that the Irish government - and he personally - had expressed concern to the British government about the case repeatedly and would continue to pursue it vigorously.
It would appear that the criminal justice system has failed the Hamill family all the way along the line. The failure of RUC officers to come to Robert Hamill's aid when he was attacked almost certainly cost him his life.
It also hampered any chance that there might have been of bringing his murderers to justice. The cases against five of the alleged perpetrators have collapsed for want of evidence, and the evidence against the remaining defendant is so vague and slight that it seems unlikely that a prosecution for murder will succeed. The Hamill family are so disillusioned with the system of criminal justice that they are actively pursuing the expensive and drastic course of bringing a private prosecution.
We urge the Special Rapporteur to convey both our original report and this new submission to the United Kingdom government and to seek answers to the 14 questions outlined in our first report. We also request that he asks the government the following additional questions:
- why has the RUC reverted to its original story that Robert Hamill's death resulted from a fight between two factions, despite acknowledging in a press statement on 5th May 1997 that four people were set upon by a large crowd?
- why were the RUC officers concerned not required to make statements about the attack before going off duty on the night of the incident?
- when will the inquest be held?