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Human rights court rules against Britain


LONDON - The European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that Britain had violated the rights of 10 members of the Irish Republican Army and two civilians shot to death by government security forces in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Provoking a surge of anger from unionist politicians and others who support British control of the province, the court ordered the British government to pay about $14,000 in compensation as well as tens of thousands of dollars in court costs to the families of each of the victims.

The court's ruling did not go so far as to say that the killings - in four separate operations by the police and the army between 1982 and 1992 - were illegal.

But the 7-0 ruling held that in failing to properly investigate the killings or to provide adequate inquests into the deaths, the government had violated the victims' right to life as guaranteed by Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The decision is a scathing criticism of the government's ability to be fair in investigating the deaths of republicans at the hands of its own forces in the sharply divided province.

Republicans favor an end to British control of Northern Ireland and have often used violent means to try to attain it.

In defense of the current government's policy, John Reid, the Northern Ireland secretary, said that it is "worth noting that the home secretary recently announced a review of inquest procedures."

At 10 Downing St., a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said he would have no comment until the government had had time to study the decision.

Meanwhile, reactions in Northern Ireland were emotional and sectarian.

Referring to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the British police force in Northern Ireland, a spokesman for the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, said, "British policy, the RUC and their legal and judicial systems stand indicted before the world."

The ruling is "the single most important legal judgment in 30 years of conflict," added the spokesman, Gerry Kelly.

But reaction from unionist groups was as outraged as Sinn Fein's was ecstatic.

"It now seems common practice, as far as the European courts are concerned, to pander to militant and undemocratic Irish Republicanism," said Ken Maginnis, a member of Parliament from the Ulster Unionist Party.

And the Police Federation, the union that represents officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, said it was outraged by the decision.

"If IRA members are killed in action carrying out a murderous deed, they will be rewarded with a lump sum or pension," a spokesman said. "There really is no justice."

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