By Ray O’Hanlon and Joe O’Neill in San Francisco
In a significant development, a California appeals court has rejected a lower court decision to extradite three escapees from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. The three are Kevin Barry Artt, Terence Kirby and Pól Brennan.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, in a split 2-1 decision, last week sent the case back to the lower Federal District Court.
Attorneys for the three men, who are being held without bail, are this week attempting to secure their release on bond. A bail hearing is expected before the end of the month.
The Ninth Circuit decision was being hailed as a stunning victory for the men, widely known as the "H-Block Three." Rep. Ben Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee immediately called for their release and an end to extradition proceedings.
The verdict was heavily based on criticism of the Diplock Court system in Northern Ireland and the manner in which evidence was presented against the three, who escaped in a mass breakout in September, 1983.
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Three judges on the Ninth bench reached the decision to send the men back for a new trial. Judges Dorothy Nelson and Betty Fletcher formed the majority while Judge Alfred Goodwin both partially concurred with, and dissented from, the decision.
Nelson and Fletcher ordered the district court to consider whether, in the case of Artt and Kirby, there were prima facie cases to be answered regarding the contention that "significant procedural abuses occurred before or during their criminal trials in Northern Ireland."
In the case of Brennan, the appeals court ordered the lower court to determine whether Brennan’s original offense was political or criminal under the existing U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty.
James Brosnahan, attorney for Artt, expressed hope that in light of the Good Friday peace accord, the British government would now drop extradition requests against the three. "This victory is like a Celtic Amistad, Brosnahan said.
"We are more than pleased. We have won a battle but the war is not over," said Gil Eisenberg, attorney for Terence Kirby.
In Washington, the decision was praised by Rep. Gilman who said that it had given fresh impetus to the argument that the Justice Department should no longer seek the extradition of the three at the behest of the British government.
"Since political prisoners are being released in Britain and in Northern and southern Ireland, the United States should not be expected to continue incarcerating Irish political prisoners and facilitating their extradition," Gilman said.
Gilman added that holding the three would be inconsistent with the policy of U.S. support for the peace process and Good Friday accord which called for prisoner releases within two years.
"I call on President Clinton to inform the British Government that he will put an end to the proceedings, as well as the deportation proceedings against the ten Irish deportees, including my constituent, Brian Pearson. It is time for healing for all the victims of the Northern Ireland troubles and their families," Gilman said.
Beaux O’Keady, president of the Northern California Irish American Unity Conference, described the appeals court decision as "a great triumph for truth."
It was fitting, he said, that the "very system used to convict them has itself been exposed to be a corrupt and fraudulent entity."
The decision was also welcomed by Sinn Féin Washington representative Rita O’Hare and Fr. Sean McManus, president of the Irish National Caucus.
The retrial and the matter of bail, meanwhile, are expected to be presided over by Judge Charles Legge, whose prior decisions in both areas have not been favorable to the three.