A COURT has heard that up to 60 masked men allegedly took part in a “display of sinister force” linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in east Belfast.

Three men were remanded in custody accused of involvement in the gathering near Pitt Park on 2 February.

Stephen Matthews, 58; Derek Lammey, 56; and David Robert Matthews, 34, were jointly charged with unlawful assembly and affray.

They appeared via video link from their cells at Belfast Magistrates’ Court on Friday f0r a first remand hearing.

Stephen ‘Mackers’ Matthews, of Pansy Street in Belfast; Mr Lammey, from Spring Place in Belfast; and David Matthews, of Millreagh in Dundonald, were arrested during raids on Wednesday morning.

The prosecution claimed that the suspected show of strength resulted in nearly a dozen people taking shelter in a community centre for eight days.

Police launched an investigation after footage circulated on social media appearing to show a large group of men with faces covered walking through the area.

The prosecution said the case against them centres on identification evidence.

She told the court neighbourhood police officers saw between 50 and 60 men in the area, apparently organised and there for a common purpose.

A member of the public pulled up in a “distressed and fearful” state and pointed in the direction of the crowd, the court heard.

It was alleged that Stephen Matthews was spotted near the front of the group “displaying a leadership role”.

He is believed by police to be the commander of East Belfast UVF.

Whilst masks were worn, the prosecution lawyer contended that all three defendants were identified by build and facial recognition.

She said up to 11 people, including children, were drawn to the nearby Ballymac Centre for safety and stayed there until 10 February.

The judge heard that police believe the group of men are linked to the East Belfast UVF.

Opposing bail, the prosecution argued that the wearing of masks was “highly indicative of those involved clearly knowing this was unlawful activity”.

She added: “This involved a display of sinister force.”

With none of the three accused charged with any paramilitary offences, defence lawyers challenged the strength of the evidence against them.

Stephen Matthews’ barrister said no face coverings or clothing to match the alleged description was discovered at his client’s home.

“This case has been all over the news, there have been politicians getting involved with complaints about how police dealt with it, and then mysteriously a number of arrests are made,” he submitted.

David Matthews’ barrister argued that the alleged UVF connection should be disregarded.

“The court simply cannot take account of claims in the community that someone may or may not be a member of an organisation,” he said.

Bail was refused for all three defendants, however, due to the risk of re-offending and interfering with the course of justice.

District Judge Fiona Bagnall remanded them in custody, to appear again by video-link on 19 March.

All three were later taken to Maghaberry prison where they will spend the next two weeks in isolation because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

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