QUESTIONS were raised yesterday morning about how senior north Belfast loyalist Ihab Shoukri – once described in a court appearance by a PSNI officer as “a high ranking member of the UDA” – was freed on bail, despite being arrested in the police raid on a suspected UDA show of strength rehearsal. Police said he was released while files were prepared for the Public Prosecution Service. Late yesterday, the PSNI Chief Constable said he will try and send him back to jail. It followed a comment by a High Court judge yesterday criticising the media for “waging a war” on judicial decisions about suspects being bailed. One wonders if such moves aren’t a rearguard action in a volatile situation, given what is already in the public domain…While there were reports yesterday that Shoukri had apparently broken his bail conditions (for a previous charge of UDA membership), Jonathan McCambridge in the Tele reported that “loyalist Shoukri’s bail conditions were initially restrictive – including being barred from entering Belfast – but were gradually softened by the judiciary. His final restriction allowed him greater freedom except he had to be indoors by 10pm. He is also not allowed to associate with his brother Andre… He had his bail conditions varied recently to allow him to return to north Belfast.”
The report continued:
SDLP Justice spokesman, Alban Maginness, said the case raised serious issues over defendants being released on bail while on terrorist offences.
“The first thing police will have to do is establish if there has been any breach of bail conditions and act accordingly.
“We are stuck in a position because of human rights legislation that even those who are charged with terrorist offences are given the protection of a liberal approach to bail.”
While the PSNI’s case to have Shoukri thrown back inside isn’t perhaps as clear cut as the Irish News reported this morning, it won’t have been the first time Shoukri, who served two years from 1997 for extortion, has been bailed while facing a charge of membership of a terrorist organisation.
Barry McCaffrey recalled that in September 2004 a High Court judge questioned why Shoukri had not been arrested when police found him in Belfast in breach of bail conditions banning him from the city. In reply to the judge’s query, a Crown barrister replied: “There are certain things I am not at liberty to go into at the moment.”
The Belfast Telegraph reported at the time that “the Crown was due to apply to have Shoukri’s bail revoked after he was seen by police in Belfast… in breach of his bail”.
The report continued:
But Crown lawyer, David Hopley, said his instructions were not to proceed with the revocation application.
Mr Justice Coghlin asked why and was told by Mr Hopley: “I have not spoken to the police officer so I cannot tell you.”
Asked by the judge why Shoukri had not been arrested as new legislation demanded, Mr Hopley said: “There are certain things I am not at liberty to go into at the moment.”
Mr Justice Coghlin said he did not think it right to interrogate counsel, but added: “I am left with a residual concern about this matter. This is a public court.”
So when Lord Justice Nicholson said yesterday it was “disturbing and very irresponsible” of the media to not fully report on the reasons behind those accused of crimes being released from custody, he must bear in mind he is asking the public to have faith in courts that give no reasons for decisions. “In the public interest” is wearing a bit thin.
This came after the Chief Constable had attacked judges for releasing defendants before their trial. I can imagine how Sir Hugh Orde might be conflicting with others in the background over this stance, and perhaps it forms part of the reason he now wants Shoukri’s bail revoked.
The original bail conditions were put in place because a detective sergeant believed there might be intimidation of witnesses in Belfast, and the SDLP queried why a figure such as Shoukri was later freed.
In an odd twist in early 2005, Shoukri’s bail was revoked at his own request, though it should be noted that this was a time of turmoil for some senior members of the UDA, particularly the so-called ‘brigadiers of bling’, and their associates.
It was reported:
As Shoukri was being handcuffed to a prison officer he was asked why he wanted to return to jail and he said: “Speak to my brother.”
His brother is, of course, UDA North Belfast commander Andre Shoukri, and my guess is that all is not well between the pair. The police raid on the Alexandra bar would appear to be in the interests of a rival UDA commander, Jackie McDonald, to get more of a grip on the organisation. McDonald and Andre are reputed to detest each other, the former said to be trying to steer the UDA in a political direction, the latter, an ideologically deficient career criminal. In November, the Sunday Life reported deep divisions between McDonald’s faction and the North Belfast crew from UTV Insight:
[I]t is understood that remarks by south Belfast UDA boss Jackie McDonald on last week’s UTV Insight programme angered [Andre] Shoukri’s supporters.
In the ‘Slow Surrender’ programme, McDonald was asked how the UDA would deal with other ‘Jim Grays’ in the organisation – a reference to the murdered east Belfast ‘bling brigadier’, who ran a money-spinning criminal empire.
He replied that it was for the Chief Constable to deal with such people.
UDA elements in north Belfast interpreted this as a direct reference to [Andre] Shoukri, currently on remand on blackmail and money laundering charges.
Last summer, the Sunday Life reported that a murder charge against Shoukri (of Alan McCullough, an erstwhile ally of exiled UFF uber-spide, Johnny Adair) was dropped because, an “unnamed man was forced to accept £10,000 to keep his mouth shut about the circumstances surrounding the 2003 murder of Alan ‘Bucky’ McCullough”.
It sounds like a bit of distraction, because the High Court was told forensic tests on fibres, fingerprints and DNA samples had proved negative for Shoukri, who had a meeting with the Irish President’s husband, Martin McAleese, around three weeks ago. When Mo Courtney was refused bail in December 2003, Mr Justice Weatherup referred to possibly incriminating soil samples that formed part of the evidence against Courtney that wasn’t part of the DPP’s evidence against Shoukri.
The McCullough murder charge wasn’t dropped from Shoukri’s co-defendant, William ‘Mo’ Courtney, and the UFF membership charge against Shoukri wasn’t dropped either. However, as has been demonstrated in court, membership of a proscribed organisation these days can only occur if the group’s ceasefire isn’t recognised, and the Government currently recognises the UDA ceasefire. So it’s not a charge that actually means anything.
All this is a long way from the recent story hailing Shoukri as a public-spirited finder of stolen goods. It’s possible a reportedly community-minded (ie political-not-terrorist-any-more) Shoukri had turned over an entirely new leaf or had a change of heart. Or maybe not – but it’s unlikely we’ll ever really know, because it’s unlikely to be in the public interest. The situation now facing Shoukri is bleak because unco-ordinated action by the authorities has allowed a situation to develop where Ihab is very much in the spotlight. Legally, a situation has been created and a recognisable pattern created whereby a person – whether you see him as terrorist suspect, innocent bystander or something else – is placed in an impossible position because the State has placed them there. It’s also becoming apparent that the law might have problems retaining public confidence elsewhere, because of the straightjacket it insists on wearing.
You can be pretty sure that if the SDLP has managed to put stuff like this together that others are putting two and two together too. Whether they get four or five is probably irrelevant.
A judge will make a decision later today about whether to put Shoukri back behind bars again. Given the high level of tension after the North Belfast UDA raid and the lack of public confidence in judicial decisions right now in these matters, that might be his safest option until the UDA’s plans and the role of its members becomes clearer, and decisions by courts are more transparent.