LONDON -- A U.K. government policy of issuing letters assuring Irish Republican Army fugitives they weren't wanted by police was flawed, but didn't give criminals a "get out of jail free card," a British judge said Thursday.
Justice Heather Hallett said the contentious "comfort letters," a little-known offshoot of the Northern Ireland peace process, "did not amount to an amnesty."
The letters came to light after the arrest of John Downey, who was charged with a 1982 bomb attack that killed four soldiers and seven horses in London's Hyde Park. His trial collapsed in February after Downey revealed he had been sent a letter in 2007 telling him — mistakenly — that he wasn't wanted.
Amid a public uproar, the government appointed Hallett to investigate the policy.
The letters were an offshoot of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which ended 30 years of bloodshed in Northern Ireland. It allowed for the early release of paramilitary prisoners, but left a question mark over hundreds who had fled, mostly to the Irish Republic.
The letters were quietly sent out starting in 2000 as a way of clarifying the status of the "on the runs," or OTRs.
About 190 fugitives were sent letters informing them they weren't being sought by police over outstanding crimes. Others had requests for such assurances turned down.
Hallett found two cases in addition to Downey's in which letters had been sent in error to people who were in fact wanted.
Britain's Conservative-led government has disowned the policy, started under the Labour Party government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers told the House of Commons on Thursday that "as far as this government is concerned, the OTR scheme is over."
"The government has always been clear that if sufficient evidence emerges, then individual OTRs are liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way," she said.