LONDON -- The British government has admitted that six men who had been in jail for 16 years for the terrorist bombings of two pubs probably were innocent and should go free.
With yesterday's admission, the government appeared to accept what the men always have alleged -- that police faked the evidence against them and beat their confessions out of them.
The men, known as the Birmingham Six, are expected to be freed at a hearing next week. The case only intensifies the debate over British justice and, especially, the handling of cases involving alleged members of the Irish Republican Army.
Three other men and a woman were freed in late 1989 after serving 15 years for two other IRA pub bombings that the government finally admitted they didn't do.
All were convicted in the 1970s during a spasm of public hysteria over fatal IRA bombings in England. All claimed at their trials that they had been framed. But the courts, both then and at later appeals, refused to accept that British police could lie under oath.
A lawyer from the public prosecutor's office, which already had admitted that scientific evidence against the Birmingham Six was worthless, told the court yesterday that it no longer believed police evidence. This demolished the government's case and meant, he said, that the convictions were "not safe and satisfactory."
The Birmingham Six are men from Northern Ireland who were working in Birmingham in 1974 when two bombs exploded in pubs there, killing 21 people and injuring 162 others -- the worst IRA bombing on mainland Britain.
None of the men belonged to the IRA, but all were IRA sympathizers. They were arrested three hours after the bombings as they were heading back to Northern Ireland to attend the funeral of a friend, an IRA man, killed by his own bomb.
Four of the men signed confessions after three days of interrogation. At their trial, they said police beat the confessions out of them. However, police testimony, plus a scientist's report that two of the men had handled nitroglycerine, led to convictions and life sentences.
Over the years, the state's case fell apart. Pictures showed the men had been badly beaten. Some of their interrogators belonged to the Crime Squad of the West Midlands police, which was disbanded two years ago after its detectives sent at least seven men to jail -- possibly more -- on faked confessions.
The nitroglycerine test has since been scientifically discredited. The scientist who administered it was prematurely retired, at age 50, because of "limited efficiency."
Television programs and books hammered away at the men's innocence and even named five IRA men, now free in Ireland, who allegedly did it.
Despite this, the high court rejected two appeals, plus a suit against the police. One judge said that in order to rule in favor of the prisoners, "I would have to suppose that a team of 15 officers had conspired among themselves to use violence on the prisoners and to fabricate evidence" -- the conclusion now accepted by the government.