Paramilitary prisoners granted early release in Northern Ireland

Michael Stone, a Protestant gunman and loyalist icon, has been freed from prison. He was convicted of six murders and had served only 11 years of a 30-year sentence.

Among the convictions was the killings of three mourners at an Irish Republican Army funeral.

His freedom, and that of 85 other paramilitary prisoners, is part of the Northern Ireland peace process. Paramilitary prisoners belonging to organizations respecting a cease-fire will be freed under a controversial provision of the 1998 peace accord.

The early-release scheme was seen as a key concession, aimed at ensuring paramilitary groups would support the peace accord.

But the early releases continue to provoke controversy. The pro-British Ulster Unionist Party has criticized the move. Assembly member Jeffrey Donaldson called the releases "frustrating" for the families of victims of paramilitary violence.

The president of Sinn Fin, the IRA's political ally, has defended the releases. Gerry Adams said they were a key part of the peace process.

To date, 340 paramilitary prisoners have left the Maze prison near Belfast. The latest wave of releases will leave the jail, which housed up to 800 Catholic and Protestant paramilitary prisoners in the mid-80s, virtually empty. Authorities predict the most secure prison in Europe will close within months.