Four charged in 2001 murder of investigative journalist in Northern Ireland

New York, September 17, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the Lisburn Magistrates’ Court decision to charge four men in the 2001 murder of Martin O’Hagan, an investigative journalist with the Dublin newspaper Sunday World.

O’Hagan, 51, was hit by gunshots from a passing car outside his home in the Northern Irish town of Lurgan on September 28, 2001. According to the Belfast Telegraph, investigators concluded in 2006 that O’Hagan was targeted for writing about the drug dealing of Mid Ulster loyalist paramilitaries.

Neil Hyde and Nigel William Leckey were charged with murder, the BBC reported. Their accomplices–Robin King and Mark Kennedy–were charged with “attempting to pervert the course of justice by disposing of, or concealing, the getaway car.” Kennedy was released on bail, while the other three defendants remained in custody; they will appear in court on October 10, the Belfast Telegraph reported.

“We welcome the recent development in the murder case of Martin O’Hagan,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “It has taken too long for justice to be served in O’Hagan’s case.”

According to AP, police arrested four suspects on September 9. One of the investigators, Detective Inspector Michael Hamilton, said the defendants denied their involvement, AP reported. Hamilton urged the court not to grant bail to Robin King–a reputed commander of an outlawed group called the Loyalist Volunteer Force–since he allegedly posed a threat to witnesses in the case.

O’Hagan was an Irish Catholic journalist who had become well known for his coverage of Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups. Twenty years before he began his career in journalism, O’Hagan was convicted of running guns for the Irish Republican Army and served five years in prison. Later, he turned away from radical politics, studied sociology at the Open University and the University of Ulster, and entered journalism as a freelancer for local newspapers, according to CPJ research.

In 1989, IRA militants kidnapped and interrogated O’Hagan, trying to force the journalist to reveal his sources of information on the militant group, and in 1999 firebombed the Sunday World office in Belfast. Facing death threats, O’Hagan was forced to flee Northern Ireland for several years in the early 1990s; it is not clear if he had been threatened prior to the shooting.

Police initially identified the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) as a primary suspect. Prior to his murder, O’Hagan had been working on several stories about the LVF, the BBC reported at the time. The day after the murder, however, the Red Hand Defenders, another Protestant militant organization, claimed responsibility for the slaying in a phone call to the BBC. The caller claimed that O’Hagan had been assassinated for “crimes” against Protestant paramilitaries, according to international news reports.