Last ever UK death sentence conviction quashed

Liam Holden, the last person to be sentenced to death in the United Kingdom, is cleared by the Court of Appeal of murdering a soldier in west Belfast in 1972

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A Belfast man, who was the last person to be sentenced to death in the United Kingdom, has been cleared of murdering a soldier in 1972.

Liam Holden spent 17 years in jail after being convicted. His death sentence was commuted to a life term.

At the time, he told the court he was forced to sign a confession after soldiers threatened to kill him and used water torture on him.

On Thursday, the Court of Appeal in Belfast overturned his conviction.

Clear guidelines

The Crown had previously said it would not object to the holding of an appeal after assessing evidence contained in a confidential annexe of material.

This showed that by interrogating Mr Holden for more than three hours, the military was in breach of clear government guidelines that suspects arrested by soldiers should be handed over immediately to the RUC for questioning.

Analysis

At the time in 1972, many people would not have believed allegations of torture.

The Conservative government and the majority unionist community would have dismissed such claims as Provisional IRA propaganda.

It is shocking that someone could be locked up for 17 years as a result of a confession that, it would appear, was extracted in this horrific way.

What is equally shocking is that it has taken decades for cases like this to come to light and for these apparent miscarriages of justice to be put right.

The Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, sitting with two other appeal court judges, said on Thursday that as evidence of the Army guidelines had not been made known to either the defence or prosecution teams during his trial, the appeal was being allowed and the conviction quashed.

Speaking outside court, Mr Holden said: "I'm delighted that after 40 years its over. But it's a pity my parents weren't alive to get this result."

Although the death penalty was abolished in Britain in 1969, it remained in Northern Ireland until 1973.

Mr Holden was 19 and working as a chef when he was taken from his home and brought to an Army post at Blackmountain school, where he was held for almost five hours.

By the end of his time in military custody he had agreed to sign a statement admitting he had killed Private Frank Bell, who died three days after being shot in the head as he patrolled Springfield Avenue, west Belfast, in September 1972.

"By the time they were finished with me I would have admitted to killing JFK," he said in an interview earlier this week.

Mr Holden said he was subjected to sustained torture and then threatened that he would be shot if he did not confess to the killing.

"I was beaten and they told me to admit I had shot the soldier, but I said that wasn't true because I didn't," he said.

"Then six soldiers came into the cubicle where I was being held and grabbed me.

"They held me down on the floor and one of them placed a towel over my face, and they got water and they started pouring the water through the towel all round my face, very slowly.

"After a while you can't get your breath but you still try to get your breath, so when you were trying to breathe in through your mouth you are sucking the water in, and if you try to breathe in through your nose, you are sniffing the water in.

"It was continual, a slow process, and at the end of it you basically feel like you are suffocating."

Mr Holden said he eventually confessed after he was threatened with being shot.

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