New Gang Legislation Criticised

The latest sweeping legislation announced to tackle Ireland's gangs yesterday has come under heavy criticism.

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern on Tuesday published the Criminal Justice Amendment Act, which contains a host of increased powers giving Gardaí and the courts more powers in their fight against gang activity.

However, the hefty new powers are a step too far for some observers, such as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), who said the changes are comparable to those of a "police state".

The campaigners also expressed deep reservations surrounding increased use of the Special Criminal Court, which would see more gang members tried without a jury.

ICCL Director Mark Kelly said: "If we are to effectively tackle gangland crime, the Gardaí must be placed in a position to fully enforce existing criminal laws, especially in cases where attempts are made to intimidate key witnesses.

"The emphasis should be upon intelligence-led and community-based policing… rather than on undermining the rule of law by expanding the Special Criminal Court." he said.

A new offence has also been created by the amendment, that of directing the activities of a criminal gang, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison. However, due to a redefinition of a 'gang' which will state a gang does not need rules, membership or roles for those in it, any hierarchical or leadership structure or continuity of involvement, some think the law will be too broad and open for misuse.

Minister Ahern said the legislation will be rushed through the Dáil. He hopes it will be on the statute books by Friday week, but his expediency has also been criticised. The Labour Party today said the plan by Minister Ahern to clear all stages through the Oireachtas by July 10th is "no way to make law".

Labour Justice Spokesman Pat Rabbitte said the Labour Party wanted to see the criminal gangs behind bars, but were concerned the abandonment of trial by jury will be shown to be unconstitutional.

"There is no evidence that tampering with juries is an issue in our criminal justice system. We have no evidence that the acquittal rate before jury trials is less effective than in the case of trials in the non-jury Special Criminal Court."

Mr Rabbitte pointed out that article 38(5) of Bunreacht na hEireann (Irish Constitution) clearly states that 'no person shall be tried on any criminal charge without a jury'.

Under other aspects of the legislation, those who help criminal gangs also face up to 15 years in prison even if the gang never get to commit the crime they were helped with. Officers of any rank will also now be permitted to act as opinion witnesses in trials.

Announcing the legislation yesterday, Minister Ahern said: "This is groundbreaking legislation we are publishing today. It is something we do not do lightly but we have a duty to protect our citizens and ensure the rule of law.

"We cannot tolerate a situation where citizens live in fear of crime gangs."


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