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VR imagery used in Hamill inquiry

6 January 09 17:16 GMT

Virtual reality technology will be used to investigate allegations that police failed to protect a Catholic man beaten to death in a sectarian attack.

Robert Hamill, 25, was beaten to death by a loyalist mob in Portadown in 1997. No-one was convicted of the killing.

It was claimed Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers in a Land Rover nearby failed to intervene.

The inquiry's hearings will begin next Tuesday, with a final report expected by the middle of next year.

The Robert Hamill Inquiry will examine whether "any wrongful act or omission by or within the Royal Ulster Constabulary facilitated his death or obstructed the investigation of it".

Officials unveiled facilities at the Interpoint Centre in Belfast where 160 witnesses - including the police officers at the centre of the allegations - will give evidence with the help of a computerised virtual reality reconstruction of the scene where the attack took place.

The human rights group British-Irish Rights Watch has campaigned over the case and on Tuesday its director Jane Winter said the inquiry was important to all those who had been targeted because of their religion.

"Robert Hamill's death was similar to many others in that he was a victim of sectarianism," she said.

"I don't believe that the people who attacked him knew who he was, but because of where he was coming from and the direction he was walking in, they knew he was Catholic.

"He was a victim of the 'any Catholic will do' attitude."

She said allegations that police officers from the then RUC at the scene failed to save Mr Hamill and subsequently frustrated the search for the truth must be thoroughly examined.

"It is important that the truth is established," said Ms Winter.

"It will speak to many other victims of sectarian attacks."

The technology to be used in the inquiry is the same as that used in the Saville Inquiry, which examined the events of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry.

A computer image recreates the street scene as it was at the time of the attack on Mr Hamill, allowing witnesses a full panoramic view of the area, the surrounding streets and the position of the police Land Rover from where officers are said to have witnessed the fatal assault.

The RUC denied the allegations levelled against its officers.

In 2004 the Government announced plans for a public inquiry into Mr Hamill's murder following a review of a number of cases by retired Canadian judge Peter Cory, but legal issues delayed the public hearings until now.

In November Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward announced he would not be extending the terms of reference of the inquiry despite appeals by the bereaved family.

Leading counsel to the inquiry Ashley Underwood QC will lead the questioning of witnesses in an investigation which has so far cost £18.8m, but which officials estimate will have a final bill of £36m.

The Hamill family will be represented by Barra McGrory QC, while the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be represented by Richard Ferguson QC.

The inquiry will be chaired by former English High Court judge Sir Edwin Jowitt, who will be assisted by former chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Constabulary Sir John Evans and moderator of the Churches' Commission for Inter Faith Relations the Rev Kathleen Richardson, Baroness Richardson of Calow.

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