Top Belfast loyalist Ihab Shoukri walked out of court today after police lost their bid to have him sent back to jail.
A judge ruled that he had not broken bail conditions when he was arrested in a raid on a pub during an alleged dress rehearsal for an Ulster Defence Association show of strength.
Police had claimed Shoukri, 31, was in breach by being in the Alexandra Bar in the north of the city along with suspected members of the outlawed organisation.
But after hearing defence arguments that he was downstairs having a quiet pint while the loyalist gathering took place in a room above, Judge Tom Burgess decided Shoukri had done nothing wrong.
He also hit out at the prosecution delay in bringing him to trial on charges of being a member of the UDA.
Even though he was first remanded in custody in the summer of 2003, and his case listed to be heard three times, Judge Burgess told Belfast Crown Court that it had been taken out each time at the Crown’s request.
If Shoukri had been held on remand for the last two years nine months that would be the equivalent of a five-and-a-half-year prison sentence for offences he is yet to be convicted of, the judge said.
“There’s a real possibility a trial date may not be given until June or even September of this year. By that stage the defendant would have been in custody for three years or more,” Judge Burgess said.
“The court does not lend itself to that position, that’s not how the legal system operates.
“Defendants are entitled to a trial at the earliest date.”
Telling both sides he would sit again next Monday in a bid to get a date fixed, the judge said: “The Crown, with the greatest respect, can’t have it both ways.”
Shoukri, whose brother Andre is widely believed to run the UDA’s North Belfast unit, sat in the dock throughout the 10-minute hearing.
He left without making any comment along with three associates, after the judge confirmed the application to have his bail revoked had been refused.
Despite claims by the Crown that Shoukri had breached the spirit of the bail arrangement originally granted in December 2003, Judge Burgess insisted he had continued to meet all of the specific conditions.
The bar where he was arrested last Thursday was well outside restricted zones; he was not there after his 10pm curfew time; he was still reporting to police; had not contacted any witnesses and had not associated with any convicted terrorists as far as the judge was aware.
Although 17 men were seized when police stormed the Alexandra, firing CS gas canisters, and 11 later charged with helping to set up a UDA meeting, none of those arrested have been convicted of these offences, the judge stressed.
Defence QC Arthur Harvey had earlier told the court that the gathering had been to plan an announced end to all UDA criminal activity.
Judge Burgess added: “The evidence against the defendant is that he was found on premises in part of which a meeting was going on which is alleged to have been linked to the UDA.
“No evidence has been placed before me to link the defendant with that meeting.
“Police have not charged him despite charging others.”