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What would an 'unlawful' Bloody Sunday verdict mean?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 11 June 2010

Next week's long-awaited report into the Bloody Sunday massacre is expected to conclude a number of fatal shootings of civilians by British soldiers were unlawful killings. Channel 4 News's Northern Irish affairs commentator Eamonn Mallie analyses the implications of such a finding.

Bloody Sunday graves: Getty

Lord Saville's inquiry will conclude a number of the fatal shootings of civilians by British soldiers were unlawful killings, it was reported today.

The longest ever British public inquiry is due to report to parliament on Tuesday afternoon. The inquiry was set up by Tony Blair on the 26th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1998 to examine new evidence.The killings of 13 unarmed men at a civil rights march in Derry in January 1972 were a critical moment in the Troubles.

According to The Guardian, sources familiar with the inquiry said Lord Saville may not explicitly recommend criminal prosecutions. Much will depend on his message, whether direct or indirect, to Northern Ireland's prosecution service the PPS.

Lord Saville's inquiry is a tribunal rather than a court of law. Although he could recommend an adjudication of unlawful killing, it would be up to Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service whether to press charges.

The killings took place in Northern Ireland, rather than in the jurisdiction of London's CPS.

Lord Trimble, the former leader of the Ulster Unionists is said to have warned Tony Blair in 1998 that any conclusion that departed "one millimetre" from the earlier 1972 Widgery report into the killings would lead to "soldiers in the dock".

The £190mn inquiry interviewed and received statements from around 2,500 people, 922 of whom were called to give oral evidence.

Custodial sentences 'unlikely'

Northern Irish affairs commentator Eamonn Mallie on what an "unlawful killing" finding would mean:

"The Saville tribunal is not a court of law - a lower burden of proof is necessary.

"Should Judge Saville conclude unlawful killing, there's an obligation for that conclusion to be passed to the Public Prosecution Service. 

"If the public prosecutor concludes after examination of what's been put before us there's a prima facie case to be answered, then the soldier in question will be arrested and charged in Northern Ireland.

"It's highly unlikely a soldier would be remanded in custody at that point - more likely placed under supervision of their former regiment or the MoD.

"When it comes to actual trial, a judge in a criminal court has to apply a higher burden of proof than in an inquiry. They would have to be satisfied "beyond reasonable doubt".

"The best legal opinion is that even if a court ruled against the soldier and found him or her guilty, there would be a non-custodial sentence.

"Yet under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, normally any conviction for a crime that pre-dated the signing of the agreement would be liable for a minimum three-year custodial sentence. At the end of the two years they can apply for early release, which would normally be given in the post-Troubles era.

"What would probably influence a judge in the case of the Bloody Sunday soldiers would be the circumstances in which the soldiers found themselves operating 38 years ago - the legal, technical, historical frameworks which would all kick in and become part of so-called sentencing principles.

"It's more likely that no soldier will serve one day arising out of a finding of unlawful killing by Lord Saville."

More from Channel 4 News on the Bloody Sunday inquiry

- 'Big reputations are at stake' - Eamonn Mallie looks ahead to Tuesday's report 
- Bloody Sunday inquiry: a timeline

The prime minister will present Lord Saville's report to parliament at 3.30pm next Tuesday, June 15th.

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