Coveney welcomes US arrest of suspect in Irish soldiers’ murder

Thomas Barrett and Derek Smallhorne shot dead in south Lebanon 34 years ago

Wed, Jul 16, 2014, 15:48

The Minister for Defence has welcomed the arrest of a man suspected of being involved in the murder of two Irish soldiers in Lebanon 34 years ago in the United States

Simon Coveney hoped the arrest of Mahmoud Bazzi (71) was the start of a process to bring the alleged perpetrator of a “heinous crime” to justice and said the Government would do “everything possible” to pursue justice.

The ice cream seller originally from Lebanon, was arrested at his home in Dearborn, Michigan by US immigration officials yesterday where he faces possible deportation.

Pte Thomas Barrett and Pte Derek Smallhorne were abducted and shot dead in 1980 in south Lebanon after their UN peacekeeping convoy was stopped by armed members of a Lebanese militia.

A third soldier, John O’Mahoney, was shot and injured but survived. The killings were believed to be revenge attacks after Irish soldiers killed a Lebanese militia member in an exchange of fire.

According to reports in the US, Mr Bazzi’s arrest is connected to his entry into the country on a false passport from the Middle East 21 years ago. It is not clear if Bazzi will face charges associated with the killings of the two Irish soldiers in Lebanon.

“The United States Government is asserting that Mr Bazzi does not have legal status in the United States and should not be present in the United States,” Vincent Picard of US immigration told RTÉ Radio. The deaths of the two Irish soldiers “was part of the investigation” into Mr Bazzi, he said.

He said Mr Bazzi was being held in a detention centre and would go before a US immigration judge in the coming days. The court case will decide what happens next. However the US would be “seeking to effect his removal from the US based on the immigration violation charge for which he was arrested,” Mr Picard said.

Mr Coveney described it as a “first step” on what will “possibly be a further long and difficult road”. He and the Government would “ do everything possible to pursue justice” for the peacekeepers.

Mr Coveney said his officials were in touch with US authorities in relation to the matter and how it will proceed. “ I am awaiting a report in that regard,” he said.

All measures open to Irish authorities have been examined in detail. The country with primary jurisdiction on the case was Lebanon “in terms of pursuing a prosecution against the alleged perpetrator” he said. However he said”no finding” had yet been made in the case against the alleged perpetrator.

Pte Barrett’s daughter Karen Barrett said this morning her family were “still in complete shock” at the news which is “34 years in the making”.

The family was still having to be “realistic” that he has only been detained for documentation violation, she said.

Ms Barrett said they had always been told they had done all they could legally in Ireland as Mr Bazzi would have to be returned to where the crimes were committed. “Unfortunately there’s no extradition between the US and Lebanon....the door has always been closed,” she told RTÉ Radio.

She hoped it would be the “first step” in getting justice for her father, for Derek Smallhorne and for John O’Mahoney.

Ms Barrett said the family have sought justice for her father’s killing for the past 34 years and exhausted all avenues in the Irish legal system.

Mr Coveney looked forward to speaking with both families “in the coming days” . He said the matter had been “continually pursued” over the years with all available channels in the Lebanon and US by successive Ministers for Defence, Foreign Affairs, officials and military authorities.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny raised the issue with the Lebanese authority during a recent visit to Irish troops serving with UNIFIL, he said.

He said thoughts should be with the families of Privates Barrett and Smallhorne whose efforts and those of comrades “have ensured this issue was never forgotten”.

Campaigning on the families behalf, a group called Justice for Smallhorne and Barrett, met with American officials in Dublin last month to request US action against Bazzi.

Earlier this month, hundreds of retired Irish soldiers held a peaceful vigil outside the US embassy in Dublin in a bid to highlight the issue.

Ms Barrett said the families are ‘eternally grateful’ to the support group for their commitment and described the 34 year campaign for justice as ‘extremely difficult.’

“At the end of day we know in our own mind, we know we’ve done all we can. We feel let down by the Irish Government. In 34 years the laws could have been changed and they haven’t been,”she said.

“What we don’t want to happen is that Bazzi is held on red tape. The Americans say he will be deported - but we don’t want him deported to a country other than Lebanon,” she said.