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Policeman's widow: Punishment for IRA killers weak

The widow of a Northern Ireland policeman killed by Irish Republican Army die-hards condemned the length of prison sentences imposed Monday on his murderers, saying they were too short to deter more attacks by IRA factions.

Kate Carroll spoke out after a Belfast judge imposed minimum prison terms on two men from the Continuity IRA splinter group who were convicted of murdering her husband Stephen in 2009. He was the first officer to be killed in Northern Ireland since 1998, the year of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord for the British territory.

Justice Paul Girvan ruled that Brendan McConville must spend a further 22 years in prison, and John Wootton 11 years, before either could apply for parole. Both have been behind bars since 2009.

McConville, 41, and Wootton, 21, originally received life sentences when they were convicted in February, but the Northern Ireland legal system allows judges to specify minimum terms before parole bids can be considered. They usually are approved.

The Continuity IRA, one of several anti-British factions still trying to undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland, lured police into the ambush by vandalizing a family's house and triggering an emergency call for help. Carroll, 48, was providing armed backup to the officers responding to the threatened family, and sitting alone in his unmarked patrol car, when he was shot once through the back of the head.

The judge said McConville and Wootten, who declined to answer questions in police custody or during their trial, have demonstrated "no remorse for what they did."

Both men were sporting long beards grown as part of a long-running protest by members of various IRA factions inside Northern Ireland's Maghaberry Prison; they also have been smearing their own excrement on their cell walls, mimicking an IRA tactic pioneered in the mid-1970s.

Carroll's widow noted that Girvan's sentences were much shorter than the 30-year minimums that typically apply in the rest of the United Kingdom for those convicted of murdering a police officer.

"Justice has been done? Not for us, it has not," Kate Carroll said, calling for Northern Ireland judges to impose the same level of punishment as elsewhere in the UK. "You cannot make exceptions in one country. It is disgusting."

She called the prospect that Wootton might be free by 2023, when he's 32, as far too weak a punishment to deter Irish republicans from attacking police. McConville, a former politician for the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, could be free in 2034 at age 63.

Carroll said Wootton's lesser punishment "gives the message out that it is fine to kill a policeman here because you get a rap on the knuckles."

Wootton's mother received a suspended 12-month sentence after admitting she hid her son's computer and other incriminating evidence from detectives.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland said in a statement it was studying the sentencing judgment and would make no detailed response.

Hours after the sentences were announced, a van was hijacked and set on fire in the divided town of Lurgan, southwest of Belfast, and police advised people to avoid the Catholic part of town. The community is often troubled by such incidents when legal action is taken against IRA factions.

The Continuity IRA, founded in 1985, is one of several small Irish republican groups still plotting bomb and gun attacks in defiance of Northern Ireland's broadly successful peace process. The once-dominant Provisional IRA renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, and one of its former commanders, Martin McGuinness, today serves as deputy leader of the region's Catholic-Protestant government.