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Indian origin solicitor arrested in N Ireland

Manmohan Sandhu is accused of phoning an associate in an attempt to have victim Jonathan Hillier "taken out" as he lay in the Ulster Hospital.

india Updated: Feb 08, 2006 20:16 IST
Nabanita Sircar
Nabanita Sircar

A solicitor of Indian origin whose conversation was secretly taped during meetings with paramilitary suspect clients, had allegedly tried to have a wounded taxi driver murdered before he could spoke to police, a court heard in Belfast.

Manmohan "Johnny" Sandhu, 41, is accused of phoning an associate in an attempt to have Ulster Volunteer Force gun attack victim Jonathan Hillier "taken out" as he lay in the Ulster Hospital. The lawyer also allegedly contacted a UVF boss in east Belfast and urged him to hide a man suspected of involvement in another murder carried out by that organisation during a violent feud last summer.

Details were disclosed as Sandhu, of Londonderry, was granted bail but banned from Antrim Serious Crime Suite, where he was covertly bugged. He was recorded at least 70 times during consultations with clients at the station, Northern Ireland's only terrorist holding centre.

Sandhu was arrested last week and interviewed 22 times by detectives before being charged with five offences between July and November last year: four counts of perverting the course of justice and one of attempting to incite the murder of Hillier.

Hillier was shot on the Westwinds estate in Newtownards, Co Down, last August at the height of a bloody dispute between the UVF and splinter Loyalist Volunteer Force.

Prosecuting barrister David Hopley told the Northern Ireland High Court the case was one of a number in which Sandhu allegedly used his mobile phone to pass information from clients at the holding centre to senior UVF representatives. He told the court that police believe Sandhu made a telephone call to an unknown person saying that he (Hillier) was at the Ulster Hospital on the outskirts of east Belfast.

The barrister alleged that Sandhu said in this conversation: "He's got to be taken out. He hasn't made a statement yet." He added: "That related to Mr Hillier, who was at that stage in the Ulster Hospital.

"Also, while consulting with a client at Antrim Serious Crime Suite, the client raised the possibility of the trial not going ahead if the victim, Mr Hillier, cannot attend."

The decision to tape Sandhu's meetings sparked controversy, with his legal representatives claiming it was a clear breach of solicitor-client confidentiality. Leaders of the Law Society of Northern Ireland met the Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde in Belfast on Monday to discuss the case and express their concerns.

But detectives leading the investigation have insisted that the seriousness and unusual nature of the offences meant police tactics were legal and necessary. Hopley stressed that the recordings, made in a consultation room, were authorised under the Regulations of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

Transcripts of the tapes were edited by an independent barrister to remove items of legal privilege before being read by police, the court was told.

Sandhu is also accused of trying to frustrate the inquiry into the murder of Jameson Lockhart last summer. Mr Lockhart was gunned down on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, the first of four victims to be killed by the UVF in its power struggle with the LVF. Hopley told the court the solicitor allegedly made a phone call about the case after consulting with a man being held at the Serious Crime Suite. He said: "Sandhu then rang a senior UVF figure in east Belfast on his mobile phone." He advised this man he was ringing him to take a murder suspect "offside".

Peter Irvine, defending, said his client strenuously denied all the charges against him. The accused, who moved from India to Northern Ireland at the age of seven, has been a qualified solicitor for the last 14 years, with 95% of his work involving criminal cases, the court was told. Irvine added that this case was a complex one and that the defence planned to contest the admissibility of evidence obtained against Sandhu.

Both his father, a retired businessman who once owned two shirt factories in Londonderry, and his wife, who runs a drapery shop in Limavady, Co Londonderry, were prepared to put up sureties on his behalf.

After consulting Detective Chief Inspector Tim Hanley, the officer leading the investigation, Lord Justice Nicholson agreed to grant bail but barred Sandhu from going into Antrim Serious Crime Suite. He was also ordered to provide £5,000 of his own bail and sureties of £10,000 from both his father and wife. He was instructed to live at his home address, report to police in Londonderry twice weekly and surrender his passport.

First Published: Feb 08, 2006 20:16 IST