Interview with Irish Political Prisoner Jimmy Smyth

On July 1 longtime Irish freedom fighter Jimmy Smyth was working with his girlfriend to renovate the bar they planned to open this week in the shadow of the Hall of Justice in San Francisco.One day later Smyth sat in a federal prison in Pleasanton, California, locked up without bail and awaiting extradition to the notorious British-controlled Maze Prison in Belfast -- where he faces a decidedly grimmer fate.Smyth has been living in San Francisco since 1984, after he and 37 other inmates whom British officials alleged were Irish Republican Army members escaped from the maximum-security Maze Prison. The 38 escapees claimed they had been framed and that they feared for their lives as political prisoners in a jail infamous for human rights abuses.Smyth and three other escapees -- Kevin Artt, Terence Kirby, and Pol Brennan -- became known internationally as the H-Block Four. They settled in San Francisco under new names, living underground until their arrest about four years ago.The 1992 arrests and pending extraditions came despite a campaign promise by Bill Clinton that if he were elected, "there will be no more Joe Dohertys." Clinton was referring to the former IRA member who escaped from a Belfast prison and spent nine years in U.S. prisons fighting extradition, until British pressure on the Reagan and Bush administrations led to his removal to Northern Ireland.On June 24 the U.S. Supreme Court did the same to Smyth, affirming a Jan. 7 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the order for his extradition. A lower court had ruled that returning Smyth would violate the U.S.-British Extradition Treaty of 1986 (which bars deportation on return home if a fugitive faced punishment based on "race, religion, nationality, or political opinions") and the United Nations' Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. That decision also released Smyth from prison in 1994, where he'd spent two years since his arrest.While the extradition battle played out, Smyth remained free on $1.5 million bail, and he spent his time quietly renovating houses, tending bar, and building a new life. Now his bail has been revoked, and unless Secretary of State Warren Christopher declines to sign the extradition warrant, Smyth will be back in the Maze before long. He fears that that may be the equivalent of a death sentence: British authorities aren't known to be friendly to Irish activists, much less prison escapees.The discouraging news for Smyth is that Christopher's boss, President Clinton, is an ideological pragmatist who is facing reelection at a time when peace talks between Britain and Northern Ireland have broken down amid new bombings attributed to the IRA.Smyth insists he has never committed a violent crime and that he is innocent of the charges that put him in prison in 1978. But he's never had a chance to prove himself: although he served five years in the Maze before escaping, he has never had a juried trial.Even here, Smyth's visitation rights in prison are limited, especially concerning interviews with the media, because of the government's increasingly strict access guidelines. As an inmate he can only phone a handful of numbers that have been registered with prison authorities. So on Monday I took his call while sitting in the clutter of the dropcloth-covered bar he had planned to open this week. We spoke at length about the politics and prejudices driving his case, his life underground in San Francisco, what last-ditch efforts can be made to avoid extradition, and the adversity -- and peril -- that awaits him if the United States sends him back to Belfast.Ron Curran: It seemed like there might be some cause for optimism in your case during the last year, especially with Clinton in office. Were you hopeful before the latest ruling?Jimmy Smyth: Yeah, but it didn't sneak up on me. I really was expecting this all along. Going back four years ago, when President Clinton made those promises to the community, if they were to vote for him, that "there would be no more Joe Dohertys," [there] was cause for some optimism. But I always had my guard up in case anything like this happened.RC: How much do you think election-year politics and the breakdown in peace talks back home might be driving this decision?JS: It's now up to the president to tell us what's going on with our cases in coming months. I would personally like to see him reelected. He is the first president ever to pick up on the real motives of what's going on back in Ireland. But from what I see, this [extradition decision] has been the direct result of British pressure on President Clinton. And what the president needs to remember is that the Irish American people will have a lot of votes come November. If I was President Clinton and somebody comes to me and says, Listen, you've got a lot of votes here, maybe 40 million, and you're falling in the polls. They're pissed at you because of this case. As someone who spoke with the White House last week put it, if Jimmy Smyth is sent back to Ireland, Bill Clinton will be sent back to Arkansas. Clinton should say: Well, what kind of character is he? If I were to release him on the streets, is there anyone gonna be in danger of him?RC: But Clinton's also under the political pressure of being seen as "coddling terrorists" if he doesn't extradite you.JS: Well, what I've always been asking is, Who are the terrorists? I wasn't in England terrorizing the English people. The British government's army was in Ireland terrorizing their people, terrorizing me. That's where the IRA came from, why it was formed. So who are the real terrorists here?RC: What's your day-to-day routine there at the Pleasanton prison?JS: You sleep, get up around nine, have a cup of tea, then get on the phone to find out what's going on with the case and back home. It's probably the most comfortable of all the ones I've been in, but prison is prison, no matter what condition it's in.RC: What do you expect to happen, given your past experience, if they send you back to Maze?JS: All along, my message has not been against prison conditions. It's been against the British government's corruption of the justice system there and here, and the shoot-to-kill policies the British have against people like myself and the Irish Republican movement. The collusion in the prisons is rampant, the information being passed through intelligence sources within the prison and the governments.RC: How do you think the British are specifically influencing American justice in your case? Is it diplomatic and political pressure from the highest levels of government?JS: Definitely. We have the letters to prove it, and that's what happened in the latest decision. There's no doubt in my mind this is what happened because the IRA called off the cease-fire. Next thing you know, President Clinton makes a deal with the British government to speed up the extradition and I get put back in prison. I had absolutely no cause to run and I never would run, so why am I back in prison?This is actually the second promise he has slid back on to the Irish community, the first one involving the McBride Principles. But the British convinced the American administration that [the Manchester bombing] was a sure sign that the Irish Republican Army and the Irish Republican movement is going to start taking action, and here's the first sign of it.But everyone understood why the Irish Republican Army broke the cease-fire -- because of the obstacles put up in front of them by the British government. [The British] never wanted to talk. All they wanted was a complete surrender by the Irish Republican Army, which they're not gonna get. So why not sit down and talk to them and let them decide when the arms should be handed over? But they will not be, will never be handed over to the British government. Never. It will have to be to some kind of intermediary and will only be handed over when the British give a commitment to leave Ireland alone.RC: Do you think the IRA's strategy right now is the best route to take to achieve peace? Do you question any aspect of it?JS: Well, let's look at the other side of that question. Were the obstacles that the British government put in front of the IRA beneficial? What was all that about? They were definitely empty promises. The Irish Republican prisoners in England went through the worst time ever after the cease-fire was called, and the cease-fire broke down after a year and a half. What does that say about what the British really wanted? What kind of message are they sending back to the people of Ireland?RC: What's the feedback you're getting as far as the press back home? Is your case in the public eye?JS: Oh, it's in the public eye, yeah, of course. The police are looking forward to me getting sent back to get some "British justice," as they call it. But you know, people can use me to look at the thousands of young men and women who have had to go through the prison system but never should have been there. The frustration is, why am I behind bars? There are so many criminals that could be put in the cell that I am occupying right now. It's the law that people who do not commit crimes do not go to prison, and I have never committed a crime in America.This is now firmly in the hands of President Clinton. He is the one who can stop Secretary of State Warren Christopher from authorizing the extradition, and he should because of his promises made to the Irish community. This case, and the cases of my colleagues, is going to have a big effect on the Irish community in America. We know Bob Dole doesn't give a crap, but there still is a chance for Clinton to redeem himself. He can be a humanitarian and stop the exploitation.RC: If Clinton folds on this and supports the ruling, what happens then?JS: I would say within two months I'm going to be sent back to the north of Ireland, back to the prison that I escaped from, and, well, the past speaks for itself from there on. I was part of one of the biggest embarrassments ever handed down to the British government, the escape of 38 men, and we've been able in San Francisco for the past four years to highlight the murder that they've been involved with in Ireland for the past 25 years. So I would say they're really looking forward to getting me back there. That might mean something would happen to me in the prison, which I wouldn't overrule at all. But the dangerous part is when and if I get released back out on the streets.RC: What was it like living underground in San Francisco?JS: You know, I've had a nice life and all, but I always expected this coming down on me. I really tried to enjoy myself, but here we are.RC: How much money do you think the U.S. government spent pursuing the case?JS: Two years ago Karen [Snell, Smyth's attorney] counted it up, and I think it was just over $1 million. That was two years ago, and just on me. Of course, keeping me in prison for two years means more taxpayer money.RC: How much do you think Manchester hurt your case?JS: It definitely had an influence, but I know why they're referring to it as, Here's the IRA blowing up this. But the other side has been responsible for more deaths over the past five years than the IRA, so Clinton should ask, Why haven't they been asked to hand over their weapons?RC: What's the one thing you would say to Clinton as he's making his decision?JS: What I would ask him to do is look at the humanitarian aspect of the case and of the other three men, let me out on bail, and put on hold the extradition pending the successful outcome of the peace process in Ireland.People who want to urge Clinton to order the State Department not to approve the extradition warrant can call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or fax (202) 456-2461. For more information, contact Dominique Mac Falls at the Irish American Unity Conference at (415) 388-2360.

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