Zaitschek awaits Belfast High Court decision on Castlereagh 'inside job'

  • 22 February 2006
  • test

An American chef accused of organising a break-in at top security barracks must wait until March for decision on case

Larry Zaitschek, the American chef accused by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) of helping organise a break-in at Castlereagh Barracks outside Belfast in March 2002 has returned to Ireland to seek a judicial review of his case. On 22 February, the Belfast High Court postponed their decision until 1 March. If successful, the review could ultimately collapse a case which sparked allegations of republican spying and has been characterised by a lack of urgency on the part of the authorities.

Larry Zaitschek, who has always protested his innocence, is seeking the review on the grounds that the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has had his file since September 2002 but almost three and a half years later has still not made a decision on whether or not to prosecute.

His lawyers argue that Zaitschek has been denied his basic human rights. Larry Zaitschek worked as a chef at the Castlereagh Barracks, the PSNI's intelligence hub in Northern Ireland, but left a few weeks before a break-in on St Patricks's Day 2002 in which sensitive documents relating to police informers and Special Branch handlers were stolen.

In the aftermath, the robbery was blamed on disgruntled policemen and the PSNI's then Chief Constable, Ronnie Flannagan, admitted it looked like an "inside job".

However a week later the PSNI blamed the IRA and said Zaitschek was a suspect.

Since then Zaitschek has not been able to return to Northern Ireland, where a warrant for his arrest is still active, and has lost contact with his young son Pearse, who along with his mother was placed on a witness protection programme.

On the week of 13 February, Zaitschek returned to Ireland for the first time since 2002 in order to mount the legal challenge, he is due to fly back to New York before the end of February.

"I'm not really interested in the politics of it all, all I want is for my son to be reunited with his father," said Zaitschek.

"It is unbelievable that my son could be effectively held hostage in this fashion.

"When he and my ex-wife were put on the witness protection programme a PSNI man told me 'When you miss your son, you'll come back to us'."

"I've been thrust into this macabre world of spies and police games but all I want is to be reunited with my son. The PPS (Publc Prosecution Service) has been wholly unjust in their treatment of me, their feet-dragging has already cost me four years contact with Pearse."

Human rights groups, including British-Irish Rights Watch, have campaigned on behalf of Ziatschek who has always protested his innocence and claims he has been made a 'political scapegoat' by the PSNI.

The 17 March 2002 break-in, which the PSNI claim Zaitschek was involved in, represented a sensational breach of security in what is one of the most heavily fortified police instillations in the North.

A gang of men overpowered sentries at the entrance to Castlereagh and then, seemingly with inside knowledge, pinpointed the room where details of IRA informers and Special Branch handlers was stored.

After the robbery Zaitschek was interviewed twice in Belfast before being allowed to return to America. After returning to New York he was again interviewed on two separate occasions by both the American police and the PSNI. Since then he has had no contact with the PSNI, who almost four years later have still not sought an extradition warrant for the chef.

Last December Zaitschek made a complaint to the Police Ombudsman over the behaviour of PSNI officers towards him.

Zaitschek believes his brief friendship with British spy Denis Donaldson may have led the security services to accuse him of involvement in the St Patrick's Day robbery.

The two met while Donaldson was in New York on Sinn Féin business and struck up a rapport. When Zaitschek came to Belfast he didn't meet up with Donaldson but says he did send the Sinn Féin member an invitation to his wedding. Donaldson never replied.

"I would be naive to rule out a link between Denis Donaldson and what is happening to me," says Zaitschek.

"I wouldn't want to think it but it is a possibility which I have contemplated. Whatever the background or reasons for the PSNI to name me as a suspect the point is that I am an innocent man."

The PSNI has bound Castlereagh and the Stormont fiasco together saying publicly that "without Castlereagh there would have been no Stormont".

If the case is withdrawn because of the delay it will cause further embarrassment to the PPS who were criticised last week for failing to decide whether or not 23 members of the security forces should be prosecuted, despite the case files being handed to them three years ago by the Stevens Inquiry.

Whatever the outcome of the challenge it will, eventually, shed light on one of the most bizzare and politically explosive events in Northern Ireland's recent past.