LONDON — The British government acted unlawfully when it imprisoned the Irish republican leader Gerry Adams without trial in the 1970s, the United Kingdom's top court ruled Wednesday.
Adams, 71, was one of about 2,000 people detained in Northern Ireland under legislation covering people suspected of terror-related offenses.
This policy of internment — imprisonment without trial — was one of the most controversial counterinsurgency tactics deployed by British authorities during "the Troubles," the 30-year conflict between Protestant "unionists" who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K., and Catholic "republicans" who want to reunify with the Republic of Ireland.
Some 3,500 people — including militants, British soldiers and civilians on both sides — were killed before a peace deal was signed in 1998.
Adams has always denied being a member of the Irish Republican Army, the main paramilitary group that waged a guerrilla campaign against the British army and was responsible for more Troubles deaths than anyone else. Until 2018 he was leader of Sinn Fein, once widely considered to be the IRA's political wing.
He was detained without trial in 1973 under legislation covering anyone "suspected of having been concerned in the commission or attempted commission of any act of terrorism." He tried to escape twice, leading to a further prison sentence of 18 months.
But the U.K.'s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that these two convictions for trying to escape from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland were invalid because Adams' detention itself was unlawful. His imprisonment had only been reviewed by a junior minister rather than "considered personally" by the U.K.'s secretary of state for Northern Ireland at the time, the court said.
“In consequence, Mr. Adams’ detention was unlawful, hence his convictions of attempting to escape from lawful custody were, likewise, unlawful,” said one of the five Supreme Court judges, Brian Kerr. “The appeal is therefore allowed and his convictions are quashed.”
The chain-of-command error was highlighted by the "30-year rule" that allows some historical documents to be declassified three decades later.
Following the judgment, Adams called on the British government to identify anyone else who may have been unlawfully imprisoned.
He said in a statement that the policy of internment "set aside the normal principles of law and was based on a blunt and brutal piece of coercive legislation."
"I have no regrets about my imprisonment except for the time I was separated from my family," he added, saying that among his fellow detainees there were "many remarkable, resilient and inspiring people."
"Internment, like all coercive measures, failed," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.