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Victims of Deadliest IRA Bombing Open Landmark Civil Court Case2008-04-07 12:00:00 AM
Victims of Northern Ireland's deadliest bombing finally got their day in court as a landmark civil lawsuit began Monday against five alleged leaders of the Irish Republican Army dissident group.
The lawsuit, seven years in the making, seeks at least $20 million (10 million pounds ; 13 million euros) in damages. It represents the first time in legal history that victims of Northern Ireland terrorism have sought justice through a civil action.
"For the first time, private citizens are confronting terrorists in our courts," the lead lawyer for the lawsuit, Lord Daniel Brennan, declared in his opening statement to High Court Justice Declan Morgan.
"It feels like a moral victory getting to this stage," said a statement from relatives of the 29 people, mostly women and children, slain when a Real IRA car bomb ravaged the main shopping street of Omagh. The death toll was particularly high because police, responding to vague telephone warnings, unwittingly evacuated people toward the bomb.
Nobody has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the Aug. 15, 1998, blast, which was designed to undermine public support for the Good Friday peace accord achieved earlier that year. The pact observes its 10th anniversary later this week.
The five men accused of leadership roles in the Real IRA -- Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Colm Murphy, Seamus Daly and Seamus McKenna -- have denied any responsibility for the attack.
None attended Monday's court hearing. Lawyers representing the alleged Real IRA figures protested against Brennan's reference to their criminal records. The judge overruled their objections.
All five have served prison terms in the Republic of Ireland for other dissident IRA charges. McKevitt currently is appealing his conviction for "directing terrorism," a charge that the Irish government specifically created in response to the Omagh carnage.
Brennan said his legal team will present records of cell phones used by the Omagh bombing team, while detectives from the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland police forces would detail their intelligence picture of the underground workings of the Real IRA in the late 1990s.
He said evidence will show that McKenna was in the car containing the bomb, Daly was in a scouting car in front while Murphy supplied the phones and other backup. Brennan said Campbell was the Real IRA's operational commander on the day and McKevitt its senior figure.
However, an American agent, David Rupert -- who infiltrated the Real IRA and proved key in putting McKevitt behind bars -- will not testify. Instead, Brennan's team will refer to more than 2,000 pages of written communications from Rupert to British and American intelligence officers -- evidence that was introduced in McKevitt's trial.
Brennan said Rupert has been protected from potential assassination, thanks to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation witness protection program. But he said police are sure operatives are trying to find him and would use any testimony as an opportunity to narrow down his possible location.
The lawsuit could open the way for similar actions against other perpetrators in Northern Ireland's conflict, which has killed 3,700 since the late 1960s. More than half of the killings were committed by the IRA and its splinter groups, about a third by anti-Catholic gangs and the rest by British security forces or in mob violence.
If successful, the lawsuit would mean that "every terrorist will have to live in fear that their assets, their homes, their belongings may be taken from them," Brennan said.
The Omagh families have been critical of police efforts on both sides of the Irish border to investigate and prosecute those behind the bombing.
A Northern Ireland electrician, Sean Hoey, was acquitted in December on charges that he built the bomb after a Belfast judge denounced the forensic evidence against him as shoddy.
Murphy, a Republic of Ireland businessman, had his Omagh-related conviction overturned in 2005 because two Irish detectives who interrogated him rewrote their interview notes and lied about it on the witness stand. He faces a retrial.
Police insist they know the identities of the dissidents who built and delivered the 500-pound (225-kilogram) car bomb into Omagh -- but lack forensic and witness evidence. Civilians rarely testify against IRA figures because of the high risk of ending up dead.
But civil suits in the United Kingdom have a lower threshold of proof than criminal cases. The Omagh families were inspired partly by the successful U.S. civil action against O.J. Simpson finding him responsible for the 1994 killings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
"Victims of terrorism around the world will be watching carefully to see what happens," said Michael Gallagher, who lost his 21-year-old son, Aiden, in the blast.
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