The alleged torture of 14 men during the British Government’s internment programme in Northern Ireland was on the scale of a war crime, the High Court heard today (Wednesday).
Counsel for the group subjected to “deep interrogation” back in 1971 claimed their treatment fell within a definition applied to international atrocities dealt with at The Hague.
Hugh Southey QC also insisted that any ministerial involvement in what happened to the so-called Hooded Men should be subjected to criminal proceedings.
He said: “If one doesn’t prosecute people at the highest level it gives rise to a greater sense of impunity.”
Surviving members of the group are taking legal action in a bid to secure an independent and human rights-compliant investigation into what they were subjected to during the Troubles.
Action is being taken against the Chief Constable, Secretary of State and the Department of Justice over alleged failures to properly probe and order a full inquiry.
Five techniques were said to have been used against the men while they were held without trial: being hooded and made to stand in a stress position against a wall and beaten if they fell; forced to listen to constant loud static noise; and deprived of sleep, food and water.
In a statement one of the group recalled collapsing and being punched in the stomach to revive him.
He said he was against the wall for three days, subjected to kicks or beatings every time he dropped to the ground or fell asleep.
Mr Justice Maguire was told the man suffered hallucinations and prayed for death.
Amid claims the Hooded Men’s treatment was sanctioned by the British State, the court heard former British Prime Minister Edward Heath was involved in the decision making process.
Stormont’s Prime Minister at the time, Brian Faulkner, was also personally briefed on the deployment of the techniques, according to their case.
And Mr Southey contended that RUC Special Branch officers were taught the methods by soldiers but sought assurances of immunity from prosecution before carrying them out.
On day two of the case he referred to the definition of war crimes applied under the Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court sitting at The Hague.
“It’s difficult to see how torture in the context one is talking about, people detained by the State in the circumstances they were, is any less serious than torture inflicted in a wartime situation,” the barrister said.
“Where one is looking at allegations of torture, which is an issue in this case, one is at the level of a war crime.”
Based on the disclosure of documents and memos, a central feature of the case is what was known by government ministers at the time.
One of those who served during that period was said to have visited a training exercise for the interrogation methods.
“There was throughout the 1970s a lack of candour essentially about precisely what ministers were aware of,” Mr Southey claimed.
He argued that examining any alleged wrongdoing by officers of the state is more important than ordinary offenders to ensure no exemptions from the prosecutorial process.
“There’s a particular high need for public confidence, because of the nature of the people said to have been involved in alleged criminality who should be held to account,” he added.
The case continues.