PARIS -- A French court convicted five Irishmen Wednesday of trying to smuggle 150 tons of arms and explosives from Libya to Ireland aboard a yacht, sentencing them to up to seven years in prison.
Judge Martine Azani began the judgments at the Paris Tribunal by handing down the heaviest sentence of seven years to Adrian Hopkins, the captain of the Panamanian-registered vessel Eksund that was seized by French customs off Brittany on Oct. 30, 1987. Hopkins was tried in absentia because he jumped bail and fled to Dublin and was rearrested there.
The provisional IRA members, Gabriel Cleary, James Doherty and James Coll, received sentences of five years each. A fifth defendant, Henri Cairns, was also given five years, two of them suspended. All five defendants were forbidden from returning to France for five years after their sentences expire.
Relatives of the defendants burst into applause after the sentence was read out. Coll gavea thunmbs up sign from the dock surrounded by bulletproof glass.
'It could not be better,' he said as he was led out in handcuffs.
The judge found the five guilty of 'transport of arms together in relation to a terrorist undertaking,' meaning they will not benefit from remission in the way other IRA members tried in Paris have done in the past.
Observers described this as a victory for the policies of Prime Minister Michel Rocard in trying to improve anti-terrorist cooperation with London.
Nevertheless, the judgment issued by Azani and two other women judges followed previous French court decisions in according the three IRA men lighter sentences on grounds they were politically motivated.
A court document issued by the panel explaining the verdicts said 'Cleary, Coll and Doherty claim a cause in the context of the struggle that has gone on for numerous years with the aim of achieving the independence of Northern Ireland and its reattachment to the Irish republic.'
A defense lawyer, Antoine Comte, said Cleary, Coll and Doherty would serve a maximum of 18 months in prison in France because they already have spent more than three years in jail awaiting trial.
'The court has taken into consideration the situation in Ireland and it has considered that this is part of the mitigating circumstances,' said Comte.
Hopkins was given bail July 3, 1990, and fled to Dublin where he was arrested and jailed. The judge said he acted 'only for pecuniary motives.' The prosecution described him as a 'romantic mercenary' and court sources said it is why he recieved a higher sentence.
Cairns was already on bail before the verdict and walked free from the trial having served three years awaiting the hearing. His sentence was said to have been suspended on grounds of 'ill health.' He sat apart from the three IRA men during the trial.
The sentences matched the requests by the prosecution though under French law the maximum for such a terrorist offense would have been 10 years