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Saturday, October 17, 1998 Published at 08:54 GMT 09:54 UK

World: Americas

Anger over IRA men's bail decision

Terence Kirby, Paul Brennan and Kevin Artt fled the Maze in 1983

The UK Government is facing a demand to pursue extradition proceedings against three IRA fugitives freed on bail in America.

Convicted murderers Kevin Artt and Terence Kirby, along with Paul Brennan, were among 38 prisoners who escaped from the Maze Prison in Belfast in 1983 in the largest jailbreak in British history.

They were arrested in California between 1992 and 1994 but US District Judge Charles Legge has now granted bail pending the men's hearing on their applications to stay in the US.

[ image: Jeffrey Donaldson: Critic of prisoner releases]
Jeffrey Donaldson: Critic of prisoner releases
Northern Ireland politician Jeffrey Donaldson MP, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, said judges had previously cited the risk of violence when refusing to send back IRA terrorists.

"I don't think any judge today could possibly argue such was the case, even if it were true, because the situation in Northern Ireland is one of a significant lowering in violence," he told BBC Radio 5 Live's Breakfast Programme.

Mr Donaldson, who has criticised the policy of freeing prisoners as part of the Good Friday Agreement, said: "This judge seems to have released these three prisoners on the basis that prisoner releases are taking place in Northern Ireland. But this is a different situation.

Jeffrey Donaldson: "Astounded" at judge's decision
"These three men are facing extradition proceedings to the UK, they face proceedings because they escaped from the Maze Prison, one of them at least is wanted to serve the rest of his sentence for the murder of a deputy governor of the prison service.

"I hope that our own government will pursue these extradition proceedings and that these people will be returned to the UK."

Mr Donaldson described as an "irony" the possibility that the men would also qualify for early release even if they were sent back.

The Democratic Unionist Party justice spokesman, Ian Paisley Jnr, branded the releases "a scandal".

He said: "There is no justification to compare escaped convicts with people who are being released here under changes in legislation in Northern Ireland."

But the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, welcomed the men's release and urged the UK Government to drop its extradition case "in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and the logic of the peace process".

Don Horgan: Charges were trumped up
Don Horgan, the lawyer for Paul Brennan, told the BBC the men would now apply to the courts to be allowed to stay in the US.

After bail was set at $500,000 each for Mr Kirby and Mr Brennan and $1m for Mr Artt, the three men emerged from the federal courthouse in San Francisco to applause from family members and well-wishers.

Mr Kirby smiled as he appeared with his wife and noted that his freedom came the same day two architects of the Northern Ireland peace accord, David Trimble and John Hume, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Another lawyer, Denis Riordan, said: "The Irish peace process was honoured by the Nobel prize today and to have these men freed today after 14 months of confinement ... is a splendid complement to what's going on internationally."

Last August, Judge Legge ordered the three former fugitives to be extradited to Britain.

They were remanded in custody as their lawyers battled in court to keep them in the US.

The three won a key victory last Friday when a federal appeals court overturned the judge's extradition order, saying he applied the wrong legal standards to the case and ordering him to reconsider their requests to remain in the US.

The court said Judge Legge had not probed deeply enough into the possibility that the three men would be punished because of "race, religion or political opinion" if returned to Northern Ireland - grounds to deny extradition.

Judge Legge said on Friday he was granting bail for the men because they were unlikely to flee and posed no risk to the community.

He also noted that under the terms of this year's peace accord, prisoners "similarly situated" to the three men were being released from prisons in Northern Ireland.

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