- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

It was a cruel gesture of the sun to shine that Saturday in August 1998, so unlike most summer days in Northern Ireland, where its light is usually filtered through the clouds.

When a maroon car exploded in the city of Omagh, the town center was crowded with residents enjoying the weather. If one counts Avril Monaghan’s unborn twin girls — and most in Omagh do — 31 persons died in the blast and more than 200 were injured.

“I was just an ordinary citizen on the morning of the 15th of August 1998, but that all changed at 10 after three,” said Michael Gallagher, whose son, Adrian, died in the blast.

Still an ordinary citizen but now armed with a cause, Mr. Gallagher and 19 other plaintiffs are suing the terrorist organization known as the Real IRA for $18 million for the bombing.

Their idea is to use civil law not only to seek justice, but also to take down the Real IRA terrorists. If the organization goes bankrupt, then the Real IRA will be out of business.

The group’s ambitions go beyond this one case: They and their attorneys argue that civil actions could change the dynamics of terrorism by empowering the victims, and that the war against terrorism is incomplete without it.

Teamed with lawyer Jason McCue and his London-based law firm, H2O, the victims group wants show the way for individuals to have a role in fighting terrorism.

The tool of civil litigation has been used before. Families of the 1998 Lockerbie, Scotland, Pan Am bombing victims successfully sued Libya, and families of the victims of the September 11 attacks are embroiled in a case against Saudi Arabia.

The hope in each case is to humanize the terror, to showcase how the terrorists’ political aims result in the loss of innocent lives.

“That’s what the terrorists don’t want to see,” Mr. McCue said. “They don’t want to see the people.” In the war against terrorism, the litigants are using the courts to wage a public relations campaign; the explosions, they say, cannot be the last word.

In Omagh that Saturday, Market Street, a bustling shopping district, buzzed with the afternoon business of weekend shoppers. Adrian Gallagher, 21, was in the clothing shop Weston’s, trying on jeans. Bopping in and out of the stores along the town’s main street, 12-year-old James Barker was with a group of Spanish exchange students who had just returned from a theme park.

Outside of the town center, Michael Gallagher was tinkering in the garage. He and his son restored cars together, with the father overseeing the mechanical work and Adrian doing the bodywork — turning scrap metal into pieces of art, the father said.

Around 2:30 p.m., authorities were warned that a bomb was about to explode at the Victorian Courthouse, which sits atop the hill where the narrow Market Street widens into High Street. Shoppers in T-shirts and sundresses were evacuated from shops that sold school uniforms and household knickknacks and moved down the street away from the courthouse.

Earlier that day, two men had parked a maroon Vauxhall Cavalier alongside the road in the direction Adrian, James, shop clerks and visitors were headed.

“They watched the women and children around them and walked away from the car knowing what they had just delivered,” Mr. Gallagher said.

At 3:10 p.m., the Cavalier exploded.

Down at the garage, Mr. Gallagher heard the blast. “I knew right away that it was a bomb, because I had heard many others in Northern Ireland,” he said.

The small country hospital that serves the area, located just a quarter-mile from the bomb scene, was quickly overwhelmed by the wounded and those looking for family members. The two nurses and one doctor on duty had to work frantically to treat the flood of patients coming by ambulance and private car.

As a father’s instinct dictates, Mr. Gallagher immediately ran to check on his wife and two daughters, then set off to the wreckage of downtown to find his only son.

On his third visit to the hospital, he waited 14 hours with a friend until he learned that Adrian had not survived.

In the nearly six years since the blast, only one person has gone to prison for crimes related to the Omagh bombing.

The standard of proof in a criminal case is very high. Even though the Real IRA claimed responsibility for the bombing two days after the blast, the police don’t have enough evidence to convict anyone else.

“The burden of proof at times means that you see people who you know did the bombings walking down the street,” Mr. McCue said.

Frustrated by the lack of criminal prosecutions, the victims’ families — who had started a support group — found inspiration from an unlikely source.

Across the Atlantic in California, the O.J. Simpson case had been unfolding before the world’s television cameras. When criminal prosecution failed, the family of Nicole Simpson, Mr. Simpson’s murdered ex-wife, sought redress in the civil courts and won.

Victor Barker, a lawyer and the father of Omagh victim James Barker, thought there was an opportunity to use civil law in the Omagh case to get a guilty verdict, but more than a dozen law firms turned him down before he found Mr. McCue.

A media lawyer who had defended news outlets being sued for libel by terrorists, Mr. McCue had advocated using civil law against the terrorists for years. “The Omagh families came along and asked, ‘Can you practice what you preach?’” Mr. McCue recalled.

The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center had successfully employed the civil legal strategy for more than 20 years to combat white-supremacist groups, and a case from 1981 was another source of inspiration for the Omagh victims’ group.

In May of 1979, white supremacists attacked a demonstration being conducted by civil rights activists. Curtis Robinson, a black man, shot one of the Klansmen. In retaliation, Michael Donald, a 19-year-old black man out on shopping errand, was lynched and hanged from a tree.

The law center sued the Ku Klux Klan on behalf of Mr. Donald’s family for inciting violence and won a $7 million judgment. It was a landmark case because a group as an entity was held responsible for promoting a certain behavior.

“The effect it had was that it wasn’t profitable to make a racist statement. It sent a message that there are ways of redress for the family,” Mr. Gallagher said.

Suing is an opportunity for a guilty verdict the families may otherwise not see.

In civil law, the standards for evidence are more lenient. The real advantage is the admissibility of certain types of evidence, specifically hearsay. In a case such as Omagh, those involved may have disclosed something about which another witness can testify.

“When you get a preponderance of those [admissions], you get a clear picture,” Mr. McCue said. “The picture we’re going to show at the end will be crystal clear.”

In August 2001, lawyers for the plaintiffs issued five writs for Seamus Daly, Michael McKevitt, Liam Campbell, Seamus McKeana and Colm Murphy, who was sentenced to 14 years for conspiracy to commit the Omagh bombing. The Real IRA itself is also named.

“Lord [Dan] Brennan and I made a decision over a pint of Guinness that we would not put someone on the writ unless we felt we could succeed,” Mr. McCue said. Mr. Brennan is the lawyer who will be handling the case in court; in Britain, advising a client and trying the case are handled by two separate lawyers.

Mr. McCue and his team have been conducting their own investigations into the bombing so they do not have to rely solely on evidence gathered by police investigators.

However, the time and manpower to collect evidence and testimony required to put together the civil case is enormous — about $2.7 million.

“We managed for two years through literally begging,” Mr. McCue said.

Fund-raising dinners and donations from around the world, including Iceland, helped keep the case afloat. A woman in a little Irish village paid for a prayer to be said every day about Mr. McCue, and both President Bush and former President Bill Clinton have backed the case.

A big boost came in 2003 when, at the urging of Paul Murphy, Cabinet secretary for Northern Ireland under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Parliament awarded the plaintiffs $1.4 million in legal aid for the case.

The funding means more than money to proceed. “They’ve rubber-stamped this as a legitimate means of fighting terrorism,” Mr. McCue said. “What’s important is this sort of normalization that you can sue a terrorist.”

Allan Gerson, the lawyer who successfully pursued a civil suit against Libya over the Pan Am bombing, said he considers Mr. McCue a blood brother. “Without knowing each other’s work, we’ve come to the same conclusion,” he said.

Lawyers are calling the approach the privatization of justice — allowing individuals to open a private-sector front in the battle with terrorists.

Mr. Gerson argued that the war against terrorism is incomplete without civil litigation.

“It is a necessary component. We have to use all the measures that are at our disposal,” he said. “You can’t bomb everybody.”

Added Mr. McCue: “Terrorism relies on its own propaganda. What they seek to do all the time is to say they’re the victims, and they refer to those who are injured as casualties of war. We can send a message that the people who are suffering are ordinary people with children and families.”

Complications arise, however, when dealing with multiple jurisdictions and differences in legal systems or when dealing with state actors who may have been complicit in the terrorist act, said Michael Buyers, a professor of law at Duke University in North Carolina.

“The only thing I’m worried about is the potential interference in sensitive issues of diplomacy,” he said. “But, if you’re talking about victims who suffered serious loss who aren’t going to find redress anywhere else, then it’s the best thing going.”

Involving individuals also deprives terrorists of the ability to dictate how people react to their attacks, Mr. Gallagher said.

Richard Fields, a lawyer who represents terrorism victims, said that “terrorists recruit on the basis that they are attacking an evil empire.”

“The IRA is technologically very sophisticated,” he said. They share their knowledge and skills with other terrorist organizations through multiple points of connection around the world in a complex infrastructure, he said.

Mr. McCue would like to see individuals form a counter-network that is just as strong, and he pointed to the Omagh case to illustrate how influential such networks can be.

In 2001, the State Department classified the Real IRA as a terrorist organization and froze all its assets as a direct result of the Omagh victims’ campaign.

Since the writs were filed in August of 2001, all the men the group is suing have been put in prison for terrorism-related charges.

“They’ve forced the issue back on the table. Authorities have gone after them for other charges,” Mr. McCue said.

At the first court hearing on April 23, the families were given a court date in January 2005 and it was revealed that an FBI spy, who was instrumental in the conviction of Michael McKevitt, would testify in the civil action.

Victory for the families could come in several forms. Proving in a court of law that the five men were responsible for the bombing will achieve what Mr. McCue called “naming and shaming.”

“My son had his life taken away from him by some very evil people, and he didn’t deserve that,” Mr. Barker said.

If the litigants are awarded damages, the money would come from the terrorists’ personal assets and from a percentage of the men’s paychecks for the rest of their lives.

“That’s quite a shackle on someone. It’s a very natural justice,” Mr. McCue said. “I quite like that.”

The victims’ support group hasn’t been idle, waiting for the trial. They meet with political leaders and other victims of terrorism and work to keep the Omagh bombing in the spotlight.

For Mr. Gallagher, the case has become a full-time job. He doesn’t have the garage anymore — it was too painful for him to be there. But outside his family’s home, a 1965 mint-green Volkswagen Beetle is parked on the street, hidden under a cover. It was the last car Adrian restored.

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