Paul Hill served fifteen years for a crime he didn’t commit. Fourteen years after being freed from jail, he finds himself fighting for justice again. Back then it was Hill versus the British justice system. Hill was one of four people—three Irish, one English—who were convicted over the IRA’s bombing of two pubs in Guildford and Woolwich, England in 1974, an attack in which seven people died. The four, who became known as the Guildford Four, were convicted solely on their confessions which they later retracted at trial, saying they were beaten out of them by police. The confessions were extracted despite the fact that ‘British intelligence services knew we had nothing to do with this because they had informers in Northern Ireland in the ’70s and ’80s giving them information on a regular basis,’ Hill says. It was considered one of Britain’s most serious miscarriages of justice. The four were finally released after dogged investigators discovered documentation at Guildford police station ‘that proved that evidence against us had been fabricated and doctored and manufactured,’ he says. ‘The judge stated that on releasing us.’
Hill has now built a new life. He lives in America, married Courtney Kennedy—daughter of assassinated US Attorney Bobby Kennedy—and has a six-year-old son. But Hill has chosen to immerse himself in what Irish campaigners consider to be another case of injustice. He has twice flown to Colombia to observe an intriguing trial that has drawn much attention.
In a sensational move two years ago, Colombian authorities arrested three Irish men alleged to be members of the IRA—Niall Connolly, Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley—and charged them with
teaching FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) Marxist rebels to build bombs, in exchange for heavy weapons. Speaking from Dublin before embarking on his recent tour of Australia, to campaign for international monitoring of the trial, Hill says he first become concerned about the case after reading newspaper reports. When Cathriona Ruane from the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas asked him to take a watchdog role, Hill was receptive. He knows that the Guildford Four were only saved from languishing in jail for their full terms because of the persistence of ‘investigative journalists who were incredibly good, documentaries on television, and people who firmly believed in us at that stage’.
It is only the second political case Hill has been prepared to become involved in since his release. The other was the Birmingham Six: the case of six Irish workers in England, also charged with fatal pub bombings in 1974, who were finally exonerated in 1991. ‘The rest of the cases I have been involved in have been straightforward criminal cases that go completely unheard of.’
His concern about the Colombian Three case was triggered by the clear absence of a presumption of innocence in statements made by the military and the Colombian president. ‘In the initial stages of their arrest they stated quite unequivocally that they were guilty. You can’t possibly receive a fair trial if the presumption of innocence has been removed. This is one of the fundamental basic rights to protect people.’
He has now been to Colombia twice—last December and in April this year—as an independent member of a delegation of observers to the trial, which is being conducted in stages. He will pass on his report, and those of the other observers, to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both groups he has worked with previously. Hill’s concerns about a fair trial include the absence of a jury and the use of informers—which, he says, ‘has been ridiculed by the European Court of Human Rights, by international jurists, both in England and Northern Ireland. And there was a case in Australia ten years ago that I campaigned for of a man who had apparently attempted to kill the Indian prime minister: the case of Tim Anderson.’
Anderson, a member of the Ananda Marga sect, was convicted and jailed over the Hilton bombing in 1978, in which three people died in the failed assassination attempt against the visiting Indian prime minister. Hill explains that the sole evidence against Anderson came from an informant. The informant, a fellow prisoner of Anderson’s, alleged that Anderson had admitted to planting the bomb. Anderson was, in fact, in Melbourne at the time of the bombing. There was an extensive campaign on Anderson’s behalf, which included Hill visiting Australia for Amnesty International. Anderson’s case went to appeal and he was released in 1991. ‘The case was dealt with quite efficiently by the Australian authorities.’
The attempt to get a fair trial for the Colombian Three is fraught with difficulty. Hill stresses that he has spoken several times with the judge conducting the trial and is convinced he is ‘an incredibly fair individual’. ‘The problem is how can he arrive at a decision which is contrary to what is being said by the president of his country?’ Hill contends that the Americans and the Colombians will stand to benefit if the Colombian Three are convicted. ‘In the so-called wave of international terrorism now, these will be the first three Europeans who have been convicted anywhere in the world of international terrorism.’
Among the disturbing contradictions that have emerged in the trial so far is that one of the three charged says he was in Cuba at the time he was supposed to be in Colombia. The secretary of the Irish Embassy supports this alibi, testifying that the suspect was indeed in Cuba at the time he was alleged to be in Colombia training FARC guerrillas. Hill describes video evidence of another of the accused attending a conference in Belfast at the time a second informer alleges he was in Bogotá. Hill says that every reporter he has spoken to at the trial, many from around the world, has admitted that the trial is a farce.
Hill believes that the presence of international media and well-paid lawyers is confronting the Colombians with a new understanding of justice. Hill says that the system is used to dealing primarily with poor people from the barrios, with little education or understanding of their rights, who are defended by lawyers who themselves are often under threat of death. ‘So when we go and observe this, it is contrary to everything they’ve been getting away with for decades in some countries in Latin America.’ He says if the three Irish are convicted, human rights observers will appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. ‘We will take it anywhere we can possibly go, even the International Court of Human Rights at The Hague.’
The trial is not expected to finish until the end of the year. One more witness will be called in June, followed by summaries by the prosecution and the defence and an independent prosecutor. The judge then adjourns to consider his verdict. ‘What is also disturbing is that there is no jury in this court, which is something we find abhorrent,’ Hill says. He describes the experience of being wrongfully convicted and feeling that no-one is listening as ‘incredibly frustrating. And the only people who really are listening are your family, and where can they go? I had 15 years of this, so no-one can tell me these things don’t happen. To me it is not abstract—it is very tangible.’
Hill can reel off a list of Irish and British people wrongfully jailed in Britain in the ’70s and ’80s over IRA-related offences, who have since had their convictions overturned—the Birmingham Six, the Winchester Three, Judith Ward, the Maguire Family. Their convictions were finally overturned because the British justice system ‘realised that they had to eventually ’fess up, as it were. I spoke to my barrister, Lord Gifford, who was a very eminent qc, and he says at any one time in the British prison system, which I think numbers 56,000 now, at least three per cent of those people will be innocent, not by being fitted up by the police, but by the system malfunctioning.’
When Hill was first released he would get eight to ten letters a month from the families of prisoners, beseeching him to take up their cases. He didn’t get involved unless they were serving extremely lengthy sentences ‘because it is hard to maintain and establish innocence over a protracted period of time. Eventually people say “I did it” because you have to say “I did it” in order to be released. That’s one of the
criteria of parole.’
Belfast-born Hill even faced the threat of a return to jail when old attempted- murder charges were brought against him in Belfast in 1994, but they were dismissed. He says it was logical that the case would collapse because the evidence for both the charges emanated from Guildford police station. He came close to succumbing to bitterness over his treatment at the hands of the British justice system, especially because he knew that ‘the people behind the charges were very senior police
officers who knew without a shadow of a doubt that we were completely innocent because they had intelligence that suggested that at the time.’
The Kennedy clan—including his mother-in-law Ethel, brother-in-law Joe and wife Courtney—flew into Belfast during his 1994 trial to lend support. ‘[The Kennedys] have always been supportive in cases of injustice in many corners of the world,’ Hill says. It was through such involvement that Hill was introduced to the Kennedys. He met Ethel first at a hearing in Congress on human rights. She introduced him to her daughter Courtney, a former lawyer. Hill says he didn’t find the transition from 15 years in jail to life with the Kennedys, and appearing at Congressional hearings, at all daunting. ‘I am not being blasé in saying that, but these are ordinary human beings like us all. They just happen to have a privileged background. I’ve never really been in awe of anything like that.’
Since moving to America, he has also been involved with Amnesty International’s Survivors’ Committee: providing counselling and psychological help for a group of people from Latin America, Indonesia and Palestine who have been victims of torture. Of the other members of the Guildford Four, he still sees Paddy Armstrong, now married with a child, on visits to Dublin, while Carole Richardson lives in England and Gerry Conlon ‘is unfortunately not doing well. He has psychological problems and stuff like that.’
Hill says he realises ‘it is not a very hip time to be engaged in human rights, specifically for Australians, after the atrocity in Bali and after September 11. But what we must not do when these things happen is erode the fundamental basic human rights that apply to us all.’ Such rights ought to extend to suspected terrorists currently being held outside the US, beyond the protection of those rights applicable to prisoners in America, he says. It includes other alleged al Qaeda prisoners held at Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, such as Australian David Hicks and several British citizens. ‘As far as I am concerned, there are no boundaries with human rights. There is no colour with human rights. There is no difference with creed.’
Andra Jackson is a journalist with The Age and appears with permission.