By Christopher Stanley*
May 2013 marks two years since the imprisonment in Northern Ireland of former IRA hunger striker, Marian Price. Her situation remains controversial.
Introduction: Continued concerns regarding the trial and imprisonment of Marian Price:
It will be two years since Marian Price was returned to prison in Northern Ireland following a political rally on Easter Day May 2011. Her position in the criminal justice process and her position in the prison system raise concerns which, on this anniversary, we address below
Marian Price and the Criminal Justice System:
Marian Price was released from prison on licence following the grant of a Royal Prerogative of Mercy in 1980. She was released on compassionate grounds due to ill health in part exacerbated through being force fed in prison and then contracting tuberculosis and anorexia. Following a political rally in Derry/Londonderry on Easter Day 2011 held in support of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, a dissident republican political organisation, Marian Price was arrested in relation to activities in support of the Real IRA, a proscribed organisation and later in relation to the shooting of two British soldiers at the Masserene Barracks in 2009. These charges were later dropped against her. She still faces prosecution a serious terrorists offences but at this point her criminal trial cannot proceed because Marian Price is unfit to stand trial.
Following Marian Price’s arrest the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland determined that the licence on which she was originally released from prison in Northern Ireland should be revoked meaning that she could be sent back to prison on the basis that she had breached the terms of the licence that had followed the grant of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. In this circumstance the imprisonment of Marian Price becomes a matter for the Northern Ireland Parole Board because, even after this prolonged period of time Marian Price remained on licence and in the same position as many other prisoners released on licence. She is not subject to the same terms of the agreement applying to prisoners released following the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
Her criminal trial, which has been challenged on the basis that Marian Price has no case to answer, has been set back because of her fitness to participate due to her deteriorating health condition. A further factor maybe the evidence held by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland allegedly implicating her in terrorist activities. This secret evidence against her is subject to a special form of testing within the criminal justice system and may not be accessible to the defence lawyers representing her. In addition, when her case does come to trial, it will be heard by a judge sitting without a jury because of the provisions applicable in Northern Ireland to terrorist related offences. These latter two points are of concern when the fair trails rights of the accused are at stake.
Marian Price and the Conditions of her Imprisonment: When she first appeared before the criminal court Marian Price was granted bail. She was immediately returned to prison on the decision of the Secretary of the State because she was subject to a licence. She was further bailed by a criminal court following the death of her sister earlier this year. She remained subject to remand pending trial because of the existence of the licence and the powers of the Secretary of State who has responsibility for those prisoners on licence in Northern Ireland.
Two aspects of this situation are problematic:.
First, the terms of the licence maybe known and would usually mean return to prison to complete the original sentence if a further criminal act is committed. However, the licence applying to Marian Price was drafted following the grant of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy the terms of which are not known because that document has been lost. Papers made available from the Cabinet Office and held at the National Archives and the reports of the parliamentary journal of record, Hansard, reveal that Marian Price was released on compassionate grounds. However, the exact terms of her conditional release are not known and therefore the Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland who now have power in relation to her application for release pending trial have to make decision in the absence of the original evidential documents.
Second, the Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland have themselves stated that they are not independent from the government in that they appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and can be dismissed by him. They are therefore part of the executive arm of the state and not the judicial arm of the state. Further, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland partially devolved criminal justice powers to the Northern Ireland following the Hillsborough Agreement 2010. The Northern Ireland Assembly through its power sharing executive has appointed a Minister for Justice who has discretionary powers available to him to release prisoners on compassionate grounds if he is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist.
Marian Price within the Northern Ireland prison estate:
Marian Price was originally detained in an all-male prison because there was no facility available in Northern Ireland to house a separated female prisoner, under the terms agreed between the government and the dissident republican movement and the dissident Loyalist movement.
She was later moved to a mixed prison facility but was again subject to isolation through her own choosing as she refuses to be classified as a remand prisoner or as an Ordinary Decent Criminal (ODC) in Northern Ireland prison service terms. Her mental and physical health have declined steadily, exacerbated by her malignant tuberculosis contracted during her previous period of imprisonment when she was subjected to a prolonged regime of force feeding as she undertook a hunger strike in support of her claim to be imprisoned in a facility in Northern Ireland.
Last year she moved into a civilian hospital where she remains. The conditions of her detention in a civilian hospital are not satisfactory. Her health care is subject to a prison regime for which there is s no protocol in place within either the Northern Ireland Prison Service or the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Inspectorate. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has recently commented that health care came be a form of torture in certain cases.
Conclusion: RW(UK) call for the release of Marian price on compassionate grounds
If there is evidence against Marian Price for a terrorist related offence it has yet to be presented by the state to its judiciary. Marian Price has once against become a symbol in Northern Ireland of its troublesome and violent past from which the many wish to move on from. She is once again becoming a possible martyr and it was always politically naïve of the British state to think that this would not be so. Her name is writ large on walls in Belfast and in the Derry/Londonderry. She symbolises the past but is very much in the present.
Civil society has protested against the grounds for the imprisonment of Marian Price, the conditions of her imprisonment and the reliance by the British state on secret evidence and closed judicial proceedings. Representations have been made to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Minister for Justice for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Inspectorate in addition to the Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland. Marian Price has been visited by NGOs from Northern Ireland including from Rights Watch (UK), the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Pat Finucane Centre. Representations have also been made to the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture, the International Committee of the Rd Cross and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, whose doctors were critical of her care in prison which facilitated her transfer to a civilian hospital. NGOs are not permitted to observe the proceedings of the Parole Commissioners. A further legal device would be to apply for a writ of habeas corpus.
If Marian Price is to be released on compassionate grounds by the Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland it should be without delay; the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland could exercise his discretionary powers to have her released because of the exceptional circumstances of the case. Finally, the Northern Ireland Court Service could accommodate her trial in hospital if she is fit to take part in the proceedings. In 2011 dissident republican Brendan Lillis was released by the Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland because he was found to be too unfit to stand trial. We continue to press for the release of Marian Price and she be afforded the right to a fair trial and not treated as a political pawn in a state of execptionalism.
*Christopher Stanley is Legal Officer with Rights Watch(UK)