A campaign to overturn the conviction of the republican prisoner Michael McKevitt gained momentum yesterday as a distinguished panel of human-rights advocates assembled in Belfast to highlight his case.
Mr McKevitt, a 54-year-old from Blackrock in Co Louth, was given a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted at Dublin’s Special Criminal Court in August 2003 of “membership of an illegal organisation” and “directing terrorism” between August 29, 1999 and October 23, 2003.
His conviction was based on the evidence of the paid FBI and MI5 informer David Rupert. In July this year, Mr McKevitt was given leave to appeal against his conviction. His legal team claimed that the authorities had failed to provide information to the defence about the tax affairs of Mr Rupert.
The Court of Criminal Appeal allowed the legal point to go forward to the Dublin Supreme Court for a hearing.
Supporters of Mr McKevitt have claimed Mr Rupert should not have been considered as a credible witness and that the trial had been politically directed by MI5 and senior gardaí.
Yesterday, members of the McKevitt family held a public meeting at the Balmoral Hotel on Belfast’s Blacks Road.
They were accompanied by the human-rights campaigning clerics Monsignor Raymond Murray, Fr Joseph McVeigh and Fr Des Wilson. Mark Thompson and Clara Reilly, both from the Belfast-based anti-collusion group Relatives for Justice, also blasted Mr McKevitt’s conviction. Kevin Winters, the family’s solicitor, was unable to attend.
Monsignor Murray told the meeting that Mr McKevitt’s conviction had been “profoundly disturbing” and that it had been a case of the law “crawling in humble submission before the will of the state and the media”.
“Media wise and in state commentary, Michael McKevitt’s name was linked with the Real IRA and then automatically, in speculation, of participation in the Omagh bombing.
“Neither Michael nor his wife Bernadette McKevitt have been questioned or arrested by the police for the Omagh bombing,” he said.
The veteran campaigner said a spurious association between Mr McKevitt and the Omagh bombing had created a climate in which political agencies could manipulate the judiciary to convict the Louth man.
“This shocking atrocity is surrounded by unanswered questions regarding the foreknowledge of the bombing on the part of MI5 and Special Branch,” Monsignor Murray added. He called the use of David Rupert “a perversion of justice”.
“Evidence of paid and schooled informants resembles internment, where persons were put in jail on the suspicion, prejudice or dislike of anonymous agents.
“The social and political consequences of accepting evidence of a long-term paid informant like Rupert are very serious and long-lasting,” he said.
Monsignor Murray said The Framing of Michael McKevitt, a pamphlet written by the hunger striker Bobby Sands’ sister Marcella Sands, presented a “strong argument for the innocence of Michael McKevitt”.
The McKevitt family, who recently met several European human-rights groups and the United Nations rapporteur, intend to take their case to the European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Bernadette Sands McKevitt, the wife of Michael McKevitt and a sister of Bobby Sands, told Daily Ireland it was becoming clearer to more people that the conviction against her husband had been “politically contrived and legally flawed”.
“The case is gaining a profile in Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe. The media can be subdued in Ireland but we are campaigning on a wider platform.
“We are confident that the Irish people can be reached and the travesty of Michael’s conviction and the role of MI5 in this country can be exposed,” she said.