Bill to allow ex-garda evidence

 

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern has amended the Criminal Justice Bill to allow former members of An Garda Siochana to give evidence in court as to the existance of a criminal organisation.

The Bill, which has been heavily criticised in a letter today's edition of The Irish Timessigned by the State's leading criminal lawyers, is designed to expand the use of the Special Criminal Court to tackle gangland crime.

Mr Ahern today vowed to press ahead with controversial anti-gangland laws.

Mr Ahern accused the senior and junior counsels and solicitors of signing up to a round robin letter and warned critics to read the radical reforms in full.

“I’d just caution people that they should read this legislation,” he said.

Mr Ahern said he would not re-examine the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill claiming it was right for gardaí on the ground, policing crime-ridden areas to give evidence on gangs.

“This expert evidence that is now being allowed potentially under this bill is in relation to the existence of a gang in a particular geographic area,” the minister said.

The bill does not allow references to the guilt or innocence of the accused, he said.

“It’s a scene setter in order to allow the court to have established in the court that there is in existence in a particular geographic area a criminal gang,” the minister said.

“This is not a seismic change in the criminal law, it is raising two offences - a new offence of directing a criminal organisation — in other words the people who don’t pull the trigger, the people who are orchestrating — and the second offence is the amended participation in a criminal gang.”

Fine Gael's Lucinda Creighton said she was afraid the latest provision would make the Bill open to challenge.

"If this legislation is referred, and I believe it will be, this particiular provision will be struck out which will essentially make this legislation redundant," she told the Dáil.

The controversial Criminal Justice Bill whose provisions include non-jury courts for criminal gangs, as well as creating an offence of criminal gang membership and of directing such a gang.

Mr Ahern said the Garda Siochána “has the resources it requires and will receive more if it requires more. I want to nail that allegation on the head.”

The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill passed its committee stage in the Dáil last night.

Fine Gael has urged that Mr Ahern abandon powers to let gardaí of any rank give evidence that someone is a member of a criminal gang. Instead, the party insists that this power should be reserved for Garda officers of chief superintendent rank and above.

Earlier this week, Labour Party justice spokesman Pat Rabbitte urged Mr Ahern to postpone the legislation’s passage until September so the Oireachtas Committee on Justice could hear expert evidence over the summer.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has criticised measures to tackle gangland crime contained the new bill, claiming it “completely ignored” the problem of witness intimidation and failed to protect the rights of victims.

The rights group said the legislation would lead to secret detention hearings, special courts and unlawful detention on the word of a single low-ranking member of the Garda.