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Omagh Victims' Civil-Court Victory Creates New Counterterrorism Tool

Michael Gallagher, who lost his son in the Omagh bombing, holds the successful civil action judgement outside the High Court in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Michael Gallagher, who lost his son in the Omagh bombing, holds the successful civil action judgement outside the High Court in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
A civil court in Belfast has awarded about $2 million in damages to relatives of some of the 29 people who were killed by the 1998 terrorist bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland. Of the four men in the Real Irish Republican Army found by the civil court to be responsible for the car bombing, only one had faced criminal charges linked to the attack.

Jason McCue, the lawyer for the victims' relatives, tells RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz the decision has created a new legal tool in the fight against terrorism -- civil lawsuits forcing individual terrorists and their helpers to pay financial compensation for what they've done.

RFE/RL: What do you think is the significance of your civil-court victory against individual members of the Real Irish Republican Army who were responsible for the Omagh bombing?

Jason McCue:
The real significance of the case is that in Northern Ireland, the criminal system failed to gain prosecutions against the individual terrorists that did the worst atrocity in Northern Ireland.

It partly failed because of the evidential hurdles in the criminal law, and because we are in the middle of a peace process. And there wasn't any political will. You can't move on if you don't reconcile issues of justice of this magnitude. It was for that reason that the families started to take the private civil route to get that justice.

RFE/RL: Could you explain why the legal standards on evidence made it easier for you to get a verdict against terrorists in a civil court than it has been for authorities to successfully carry out criminal prosecutions against the bombers?

The only prosecution relative to the Omagh bombing was against one individual. And that was for supplying a mobile phone. So it was an aiding-and-abetting charge.

There were no prosecutions in relation to the actual people who did the bombings. So the families very much wanted to get at who did it. Hence, we did the civil action.

[Under] criminal law, [the prosecution] must prove its case "beyond reasonable doubt." Whereas in a civil law case -- because the conviction after it is not a prison sentence but a financial penalty -- you only have to prove it on the "balance of probability."

The other advantage is that we can put in hearsay evidence in a civil court, where as you can't put in hearsay evidence in a criminal case.

RFE/RL: How does the civil-court ruling bring closure for the families of the 29 people who were killed by the Omagh bombing?

In this specific case, as of the verdict, we can now point at people with impunity in our society and call them pariahs -- and treat them as pariahs -- who have been found liable of this bombing. We have also put a huge financial burden around their neck.

Modern-day terrorism in the U.K., in Europe, and further afield is about gangsters. It is about financial opportunity. And what this case shows in the specific and in the wider sense is that it is not profitable to be a terrorist anymore.

RFE/RL: How are you going to collect the money from the Real IRA that the court has awarded in the judgment?

The judgment has come in at about $2 million [in compensatory damages]. There is another aspect of the case where we will now be applying for punitive-style damages -- which will get it into the multimillions.

Some of these individuals who have been found liable have wealth. Some of them have several homes, which we can target our judgment against. Some of them have money in bank accounts. Some of them have had money frozen abroad. And we will be going after that.

We particularly sued the Real IRA itself and its leaders in a representational capacity as army council. The reason for that is we could attach onto frozen assets wherever they are around the world.

RFE/RL: How does your civil case on the Omagh bombing differ from civil actions that have been brought against terrorist groups in other countries?

Over the last 10 years, after starting the Omagh action, we've been involved in setting up lots of other actions.

We have set up a case in America for the victims of the Second [Palestinian] Intifada -- against Arab Bank, who we allege were offering rewards to suicide-bomber families. That case is ongoing, but that is targeting a financial institution. And what hadn't been done before Omagh [in a civil case] was targeting the individuals who were actually responsible.

Civil Route Gaining Attention

RFE/RL: How do you expect the Omagh ruling to impact other civil actions against terrorist groups in the United Kingdom, Europe, and elsewhere in the world?

When you stand there and issue a writ on it -- and you are in front of the media -- all these legal pundits and politicians around will come out and say: "It's impossible. You can't do it legally. You can't do it practically."

Because we've notched up a victory, I think all of a sudden that tide has changed. It's very noticeable here in the U.K. The politicians are saying, "Oh, this could be taken further." Lawyers are all of a sudden going, "Ah, this is possible." And more importantly than anything, victims are saying, "I want to have a go too."

So I think a group like Al-Qaeda and other well-known terrorist groups are going to find themselves at the end of writs in the future -- for sure.

RFE/RL: Are there other cases of terrorist attacks where you plan to work with victims' relatives in order to bring civil action?

We've been approached by [relatives of the July 7, 2005, London bombing] victims. We've been approached by the [families of] Mumbai victims. And they've all been looking at the results of the Omagh case before taking the significant step in seeking justice themselves.

I predict, whether it is myself as a lawyer or other lawyers coming along, that the [relatives of] Mumbai victims and certainly the 7-7 victims are going to start bringing [civil] cases. And I wouldn't just say we can expect them in the U.K. I think we can find them abroad.

RFE/RL: How would you describe the Omagh ruling's impact as a tool that can used against individual terrorists?

I'd love to talk up after the victory of Omagh that this is the greatest thing that has ever happened in counterterrorism. But we all know that is not necessarily the case.

But it is a great lift spiritually and morally. And that's important because the fight against terrorism is about taking a moral stand and doing the right thing. And this has been done within the rule of law. The terrorists can break the law. But we're not going to break the law coming back. We're going to fight them legitimately. Hence, victims bringing a case within the rule of law -- and bringing it on their own without state backing -- is a very powerful tool.

Attacking The Terrorism Brand

RFE/RL: You speak about attacking terrorist groups through the same way that a consumer's group might take a corporation to court over health or environmental issues.

Terrorism costs a lot of money. It is like a corporation. It should be treated as a corporation. In a way, Al-Qaeda is just like a modern-day brand. They are fighting a brand war for getting TV space and coverage.

The great thing about the civil actions is that it treats terrorists and their groups as a corporate brand to attack and to show to the public the weaknesses in it and the false claims it makes. You hurt a corporation by hitting them financially -- showing them that there is no profit in this. That is why it is worthwhile to look at this and to start targeting on it.

RFE/RL: But imagine you won a ruling against a shadowy terrorist group like Al-Qaeda. How would you collect the court-awarded damages from a group like that?

Lots of people are now saying: "Well, how do you get the money off of them? How do you do this?" Well, state investigation services around the world -- whether it is intelligence or police -- have found multimillions belonging to these groups, which have been frozen. One of the next steps, and certainly where we will be going with this [Omagh] case, is to go to those states which have frozen money and say, "Look. This has to go back to the victims -- the ones that deserve it."

If you take a case which is against a group like Al-Qaeda or Hamas or Hizballah, around the world there are many, many pots of money. That will certainly interest lawyers in bringing cases. And I think we will see changes of law in some jurisdictions to allow that to be accessed.

But regardless of that, whether they are in the IRA as such, whether they are in Al-Qaeda, whatever -- targeting those profiteers as individuals can sometimes be as important as targeting the organizational funds.

RFE/RL: Do you think that governments had a monopoly on fighting terrorism before the Omagh ruling?

For a long time, governments have had a monopoly at fighting terrorism. And rightly so. But they are not necessarily the most efficient at it. They are not necessarily the best vehicle.

With victims bringing the case, it is very hard for terrorists and the terrorist community to actually challenge them directly. Them doing something on their own has more power than we imagine on the psychology of terrorism. What we've got to start doing is use our heads a lot more. And using clever methodology and thought to fight this -- to tackle it cerebrally.

RFE/RL: What do you think needs to be done to make it easier for the relatives of terrorism victims to bring civil actions against organized terrorist groups?

There are other civil actions in the world, [but] these cases cost millions of pounds. Because of the nature of that, you'll find that they are all targeting either state sponsors of terrorism -- quite simply because they have a pocket -- or banks or financial houses. Hence, why we don't see cases targeting the individuals who have less readily [available] money.

I think these things will change now because people have seen the merit of fighting a moral case. Certainly, we'll be working on trying to get the governments around the world to find a way of streamlining these cases and helping fund them to make them much more economical and easier -- more open -- for people to do.