A former police chef is to be extradited from the United States to face charges linked to the theft of Special Branch files in Belfast.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland confirmed today they are to start legal moves to have Larry Zaitschek, 38, brought back to be accused of aggravated burglary, assault and imprisonment of a police officer and having information likely to be of use to terrorists.
At the time of the break-in at the offices at Castlereagh in March 2002, police blamed the IRA.
Mr Zaitschek, who worked in the canteen for seven years, has always protested his innocence.
He was twice interviewed by detectives before leaving for New York where he was questioned for a third time. He left Northern Ireland three days after the theft on a ticket bought a month earlier when he told his employers he would be leaving.
Dozens of Special Branch files were stolen after an officer was overpowered by a gang which police later claimed belonged to the IRA.
None of the files has been recovered.
Mr Zaitschek had started High Court proceedings in which he alleged the delay in bringing him back to Northern Ireland was designed to stop him having access to his estranged wife and seven-year-old son Pearse.
Even though it was the IRA’s alleged involvement in a spy ring inside government offices in Belfast which led to the suspension of the powersharing executive at Stormont in October 2002, the Castlereagh break-in was a serious blow to the peace process.
Mr Zaitschek was hired as as a chef just days after he applied for the job following his recovery from a serious car accident in August 1998. A month before the theft of files, he told his employers he would be returning to the United States.
He later claimed: “There were even nights out drinking, everyone saying goodbye to me. I was moving back to America. It’s not exactly something you do on a whim.”
When investigating police questioned him in Belfast they shook his hand and wished him well, he claimed. He said he was told: “We’re done with you in our inquiries. Good luck in America. Thanks for all your great food.”
In an interview with the Daily Ireland newspaper, he added: “So everyone knew I was leaving. They were done with me. I left, and then this whole story was concocted.”
Mr Zaitschek’s solicitor Mr Kevin Winters was unavailable for comment, but with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern due in Belfast next week, republicans claimed the timing of the announcement to have him extradited was designed to cause maximum political effect.
The Fermanagh-south Tyrone Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew said: “There are those securocrats within the British system intent on undermining efforts to make progress.
“We have seen allegations of this nature in the past. Like the so called Stormontgate affair people were charged in a blaze of publicity but the case collapsed and the British system exposed for its role in collapsing democratically elected institutions.
“Years on from the break in at Castlereagh the PSNI have not been able to produce one shred of evidence to back up their claim of republican involvement. This remains the case.”
The SDLP Justice spokesperson Alban Maginness said the delay in seeking the extradition was strange and worrying.
He asked: “Is it because the evidence against Mr Zaitschek is weak? Or is it because a source is being protected?”
Mr Maginness added: “Justice delayed is justice denied. Serious questions have to be asked about this case and serious answers have to be given by the authorities. Either the DPP or the Attorney General needs to explain what has been happening in this case.”
But the Democratic Unionist MP for Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson said he welcomed the decision to press charges.
He said: “There remains serious questions to be answered about what happened at Castlereagh and the IRA’s involvement in it. I believe this man will be able to assist the police in taking forward their investigation.”