THREE Irish terrorists arrested in Slovakia last year for trying to buy weapons were sentenced in a London court on May 7 to 30 years in jail each.
Michael MacDonald, Fintan O'Farrell and Declan Rafferty received the verdicts after unexpectedly confessing the week before to having been planning a bombing in Ireland or mainland Britain, for which they attempted to buy weapons in western Slovakia's Piešťany last year.
They also admitted that they belonged to the Real IRA, a hard-line offshoot of Ireland's IRA.
UK media reported that the men had written a list of weapons they wanted to acquire on a paper napkin in a Piešťany bar and had given it to another man they thought was an Iraqi arms merchant, but who was in fact an agent with Britain's MI5 secret service.
The list of weapons included 5,000 kilogrammes of semtex explosive, 2,000 detonators, 200 rocket-propelled grenades, 500 handguns, a wire guided missile and sniper rifles capable of penetrating British army vests.
With the sudden confessions, Slovak police were relieved of a gag order on the case, and touted the role domestic security forces had played in the arrest of the Irish terrorists on July 5, 2001.
"It [the arrest] was just like you see in films," said Jaroslav Paľov, head of the Slovak branch of Interpol, for the daily paper Sme.
Paľov said Slovak police commandos had set up a roadblock forcing a windowless van carrying the Irish and the MI5 agents to stop. "When the Slovak police suddenly got out and ordered them to stop, it came as an absolute surprise. All three were taken down in a matter of seconds."
Police corps vice-president Jaroslav Spišiak said he had offered the services of the Slovak police to the British, who had been following the Irish men for several months as they moved around the world. "When they saw we were capable of arresting the men, they relied on us," he said.
However, a Slovak lawyer who defended the prisoners before their extradition to England accused the country's justice system of having violated the men's rights.
Lawyer Ján Gereg said a Slovak court had not been given enough time in delivering a verdict on the extradition, while Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský had not ordered the decision be examined by a higher court. In addition, he said, the British agents had not obtained permission to use listening devices and hidden cameras to trap the suspects.
"Even when you're dealing with the worst kind of terrorist, you have to keep to at least the basic principles of law," Gereg said.
A web site claiming to serve the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association refers to the men as "the Slovak 3" and protests the conditions under which they were held at Belmarsh prison in London.
"Confined to their cells for 26 hours at a time they are not allowed any exercise periods, use of the gym is also proscribed - as are visits to the prison shop and library. As a result all three men are suffering physically with serious weight-loss," reads a statement by the Prisoners Aid Committee.
However, in the wake of the confessions, Spišiak praised the work of the Slovak police, which he said would help improve Slovakia's reputation as a weak spot in the global effort to stem the arms trade.
"If we ever had such a reputation, such events [as the arrest of the Irish terrorists] help to make that a thing of the past," he said.