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Moderate Catholic rips IRA amnesty plan

DUBLIN -- A leader of Northern Ireland's moderate Catholics criticized government plans to offer amnesty to IRA fugitives, saying yesterday they will allow fugitives guilty of killings and bombings to avoid taking responsibility for their crimes.

The joint British-Irish measures are expected to pass next year, and the governments argue that they are consistent with Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord, which allowed more than 500 convicted members of the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups to walk free from prison.

But Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Mark Durkan, speaking after a meeting in Dublin with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, said the plans would allow fugitives to be convicted and given suspended sentences in absentia -- against the wishes of many victims.

''Victims are not only going to be denied justice, but they will be denied truth as well," Durkan said.

Durkan also criticized British plans, revealed yesterday, to promote so-called ''community restorative justice programs." Such projects, chiefly backed by the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, encourage victims of crime to seek justice via community committees, not the Northern Ireland police.

The committees, which often involve figures with IRA and other paramilitary backgrounds, encourage suspected criminals to confess their crimes directly to their victims and to compensate them.

Britain's second-highest government minister in Northern Ireland, David Hanson, insisted that the aim was to encourage 14 existing ''restorative justice" projects to begin cooperating with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

But Durkan said the British were running the risk of giving more power to the IRA and other outlawed groups.

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