Victims' families take Britain to court over Northern Ireland amnesty bill

FILE PHOTO: A person holds a poster as campaigners and families of those affected during the period of conflict centred in Northern Ireland, known as The Troubles, hand a letter of protest against the British government's proposals for possible legal proceedings into various killings, at Downing Street in London, Britain, September 6, 2021. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

BELFAST (Reuters) - The British government faces 16 legal challenges, mostly from victims' families, against a contentious new law that would give amnesties to former soldiers and militants involved in decades of violence in Northern Ireland, a court heard on Wednesday.

Victims' families, human rights organisations and all major political parties on the island of Ireland - both British unionist and Irish nationalist - have condemned the law which offers immunity from prosecution for those who cooperate fully with a new investigative body.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, whose government is also considering mounting a legal challenge, raised the issue with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Varadkar said.

Lawyers for the applicants in Belfast expect the 16 legal challenges to be streamlined into a smaller number that would test the legality of the new system. A ruling could be issued by Christmas, said Gavin Booth, acting on behalf of four families.

"The UK government doesn't seem to give a damn about us. We'll fight on no matter how long it takes," said Martina Dillon, whose husband, Seamus, was shot and killed in 1997, shortly before a peace deal largely ended the conflict.

"All we're asking for is justice. We're entitled to it. If it happened in any other country, it wouldn't be stood for," she told reporters outside the packed courtroom.

Britain has argued that prosecutions linked to the events of up to 55 years ago are increasingly unlikely to lead to convictions and that the legislation is needed to draw a line under the conflict.

The challenges lodged cover inquests, criminal prosecutions and civil claims that would cease under the new system. An inquest into Seamus Dillon's murder began in March.

Amnesty International, which is supporting some of the victims, called on Dublin to swiftly decide to take a case against the British government.

"The burden of legal challenge should not fall solely on the shoulders of victims. It is also over to the Irish government to stand by victims," Amnesty International Northern Ireland deputy director Grainne Teggart told reporters.

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson, writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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