The High Court has reserved its judgment on whether seven former paratroopers who are facing questioning over Bloody Sunday should be detained and transferred to Northern Ireland for interview by police.
Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas described the case as “a matter of great public interest” and said after a day-long hearing in London the court’s decision would be given as soon as possible.
The ex-soldiers - referred to as B, N, O, Q, R, U, V - are seeking judicial review against the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), who wants them brought back for an investigation into whether potential criminal offences may have been committed by soldiers who used lethal force on Bloody Sunday in 1972.
At the centre of the case is the way the PSNI is conducting its historical probe into the deaths of 14 civil rights demonstrators in Derry.
Lawyers for the ex-soldiers, who live in England and gave evidence to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry (BSI), argued that there was a real danger their lives could unnecessarily be put at risk.
The courts had already accepted that there were many in Northern Ireland, and especially in Derry, who believed the soldiers were party to murder, said James Lewis QC.
The risk to life was so acute that the men’s evidence before the BSI had to be taken in Britain.
The Chief Constable’s legal team rejected the claim and countered: “The police are well used to dealing with the risks of people coming to Northern Ireland.”
Jonathan Hall QC, appearing for the Chief Constable, observed in court: “Criminal investigations are unpleasant and unwelcome to those caught up in them, but are necessary for the rule of law.”
Mr Lewis was asking the court to block the arrests of the seven and said they were all willing to “voluntarily attend for an interview under caution” in England.
The QC told Lord Thomas, sitting with Mr Justice Openshaw and Mrs Justice Carr, that arresting and transporting them “for what can only be described as administrative convenience” would be “unlawful, irrational and disproportionate”.
All the men also intended to make “no comment” when questioned.
He said the case of Soldier O, who had to travel long distances in a wheelchair after being left paralysed down his right side by a stroke, revealed that it appeared the PSNI had “an obsessive, mean-spirited intention to arrest at all costs”.
Later in the hearing it was agreed by both sides there would be further reports on O to check his fitness to travel.
Today’s legal action follows the arrest of a former colleague in Northern Ireland - the first ex-soldier detained.
The arrest of the 66-year-old, who was held in Co Antrim and later released on police bail, was welcomed by relatives of those killed.
A petition calling for soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday to be granted immunity from prosecution has gained tens of thousands of supporters.
Thirteen people were killed by members of the Parachute Regiment on the day of the incident in Derry’s Bogside. Another victim of the shootings died in hospital four months later.
Northern Ireland police launched the murder investigation in 2012. It was initiated after a Government-commissioned inquiry, undertaken by Lord Saville, found that none of the victims was posing a threat to soldiers when they were shot.
Following the publication of the Saville report in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for the Army’s actions, branding them “unjustified and unjustifiable”.
In September, the PSNI told bereaved families they intended to interview a number of former soldiers about their involvement on the day.
Lord Thomas described the case as “one of the most extraordinary cases in the annals of the common law”.
He said a highly relevant question for the court to consider was whether it was necessary for the interviews to take place in Northern Ireland when the ex-soldiers’ solicitors had indicated they were intending to make “no comment” in any event.
Mr Hall said the court today could not say whether or not the men would say something “which materially advances the investigation”.
Parliament had given the PSNI power to make arrests in other jurisdictions of the United Kingdom.
He said the “dilemma” that arose was whether a case “unique in the annals of British legal history” should not be investigated in the normal way “because of the exceptional circumstances”.
Mr Hall said: “Plainly the police would like to investigate and demonstrate they ought to be able to investigate a complicated and serious case of murder, or attempted murder, as they investigate any other offence of murder, or attempted murder.
“That involves interviewing at the location whether the investigations are being carried out.”
Mr Hall submitted: “It is an extraordinary case to which ordinary principles ought to apply.”