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H-Block and Armagh Prisons Independent Panel Report Details the Systemic Inhumane Treatment of Prisoners

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Richard Harvey of the Garden Court Chambers International Team is a member of the Independent Panel of Inquiry which published this unprecedented new report ‘I Am Sir, You Are A Number’.

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An unprecedented new report released today by the Independent Panel of Inquiry into the Circumstances of the H-Block and Armagh Prison Protests 1976-1981 concludes that protesting prisoners in the H-Blocks and HMP Armagh were subjected to systemic inhuman and degrading treatment, in some cases amounting to torture.

The report, titled ‘I Am Sir, You Are A Number’ is the first comprehensive review and analysis of the experiences of men and women prisoners held in the H-Blocks and Armagh following the withdrawal of Special Category Status on 1st March 1976. 

It identifies forty-seven key findings reflecting persistent abuses of power endured by the men and women held in the H-Blocks and Armagh and the long-term impact on the lives of former prisoners and their families.

The Independent Panel was chaired by the late Warren Allmand, former Solicitor-General for Canada; alongside Richard Harvey, Barrister-at-Law, Garden Court Chambers, London; and Dr John Burton, retired family doctor and researcher in Human Rights Law.

Panel member and international Barrister Richard Harvey, said:

“Evidence we gathered from the UK Government’s confidential documents show it was known and accepted that extreme brutality would be used in implementing the withdrawal of Special Category Status in violation of prisoners’ rights under Article 3 of the European Convention.”

The Panel heard testimonies from Republican blanket protestors, Loyalist prisoners, former prison governors, medical practitioners (including a consultant psychiatrist) and lawyers, academics, politicians and clergy.

In harrowing evidence before the Panel, former prisoners revealed the circumstances and consequences of the severe policies and punishing practices directed against them over a sustained period.

Documents accessed by the Panel’s researchers demonstrate that the UK Government, NI Civil Servants and the NI Prison Service were aware of the consequences of ending Special Category Status, described in one official document as ‘an administrative and disciplinary disaster’, within the prisons.

Sustained protests in the jails were anticipated, yet ‘the Administration would withstand this pressure, even after the deaths of prisoners’ through ‘mass and individual hunger strikes’.

Having considered the evidence of former prisoners, whose lives remain scarred by physical and psychological suffering and social disabilities, the panel concluded that the inhuman conditions in which prisoners were held were calculated to cause intense physical and mental suffering with the intention of humiliating and debasing prisoners and breaking their physical and moral resistance.

Professor Phil Scraton, editor of the report, said:

“From the transcripts of in-depth interviews with men and women former prisoners presented in this Report, it is evident they endured unacceptable levels of physical and psychological punishment, violence and violation.

“Administered purposefully, without the checks and balances of State institutional accountability, it constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment within the UN General Assembly’s 1975 definition of torture.”

The Report concludes that the treatment of prisoners was the consequence of a deliberate policy implemented by the UK Government whose institutions were fully aware that their policies and practices violated international human rights standards and breached common law and statute.

The Panel also concluded, based on all the evidence received, that the ultimate legal and moral responsibility for this level of inhumanity and degradation rested on successive Prime Ministers and their senior Cabinet Ministers who knew and approved of that treatment.

Former political prisoner Séanna Walsh from Coiste na n-Iarchimí, stated:

“Throughout the world people are familiar with the heroism of the 1981 H-Block Hunger Strikes. Not so well-known is the story of suffering and hardship which led to the tragedy of that fateful year. 

It has taken 39 years to bring together testimonies of that horror, honouring all who endured and survived.”

Solicitor to the Independent Panel, Padraig Ó Muirigh, said:

“The only weapon against bad history deployed by the State for political vindication is scrupulous investigation that results in evidence-based findings. 

“This report does exactly that and shines a light on a very dark period of our recent conflict.

“The widespread human rights abuses suffered by the protesting prisoners were also a challenge to their very humanity, but through their harrowing testimonies the witnesses to the Panel will help ensure that they will no longer be recognised as mere numbers by those who inflicted the abuses.”

An online event was broadcast on Féile an Phobail website feilebelfast.com and can be seen below. 

Access to prisoners’ files, preparation of prisoners’ testimonies, legislative research and access to Government documents were administered by Ó Muirigh Solicitors.
 

Report Endorsements

“What struck me most on reading this Report was how seemingly highly cultured government officials and civil servants, when faced with extremities of conscience and courage, could impose extremities of harsh, brutalising control, because to show even the tiniest bit of human compassion would be seen as weak. The bodies and minds that were damaged were those of the prisoners; the spirit that was broken was the spirit of fairness, justice and humanity of those who wrote the policies and insisted on the regime.”    - Justice Albie Sachs, Constitutional Court Judge (Retd), South Africa

“The importance of this work, which highlights the torture and humiliation suffered by the women and men in Armagh Jail and Long Kesh, is of great historical significance. Their stories confirm to the world that these were people who were totally committed to a political goal and their sacrifices have contributed to the peace process in this country.” - Senator/Seanadóir Frances Black, Seanad Éireann/ Senate of Ireland

“Chaired by the indomitable, late Warren Allmand, the Independent Tribunal emerges with a report that provides a welcome and much needed beacon of light, exposing in meticulous and often painful detail the manner in which state power and authority resulted in horrendous abuses of power and torture by those who exercise control over their conditions of confinement … chronicling a shameful period of Ireland’s past. The international community must ensure the vital importance of independent, transparent and rigorous oversight, as well as access to timely, effective and transformative measures to remedy the ongoing wrongs this report lays bare.” - The Honourable Kim Pate, C.M., Senator for Ontario, Senate of Canada

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