In 1973 Liam Holden was convicted of murdering a British soldier in Northern Ireland and became the last person in the United Kingdom to be sentenced to hang.
On Friday – half a century after the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, 11 years after the sentence was quashed and a year after Holden died – a high court in Belfast awarded £350,000 to his estate.
The court accepted that the army waterboarded and tortured Holden into confessing to shooting Frank Bell, an 18-year-old member of the parachute regiment. The posthumous award included damages for inhumane and degrading treatment, misfeasance in public office and malicious prosecution.
Holden died last September, aged 68, after campaigning for decades to clear his name. The damages case was brought against the Ministry of Defence.
His son Samuel told BBC radio the family was sad and relieved. “My father is not here to see this finished, to see it done. It was a long, long journey for him, a long road – he went through an awful lot to get here. What he went through should never have happened … today it’s all clear that he was innocent.”
The Pat Finucane Centre tweeted: “Sadly he passed away before this vindication.”
The Troubles were at their height in 1973 when soldiers detained Holden on suspicion he was the sniper who had shot Bell in Ballymurphy in west Belfast. A jury convicted Holden after a four-day trial. The judge told him: “You will suffer death in the manner authorised by law.”
Shortly after his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment capital punishment was abolished in Northern Ireland, aligning it with the rest of the UK. Holden served 17 years.
In 2012 the court of appeal quashed the conviction after hearing that Holden had signed a confession after being taken to an army base near to the scene of the shooting and subjected to waterboarding and death threats. Inquiries by the Criminal Cases Review Commission discovered evidence that the army’s practice of detaining and questioning suspects at that time was unlawful. Holden was awarded £1m for losses suffered due to the miscarriage of justice.
In 2022 he launched a civil case for compensation. He told an earlier hearing soldiers had pinned him to the floor and placed a towel over his face. “They started pouring a bucket of water slowly through the towel. The first thing I felt was the cold, then trying to breathe and then sucking water in through my mouth and up my nose. It was like you were just drowning.”
Holden said he was hooded and taken to a loyalist area of Belfast. “While we were driving one of the soldiers was tapping my knee with a gun, saying: ‘This is for you’,” he told the court. The soldiers brought him to a field, put a gun to his head and said they would shoot him if he did not confess. “[I] made a cock-and-bull story about where I shot him from, where I got the weapon, where I dumped the weapon and how I got away,” he said.