Two arrested documentary makers have retrieved a vast haul of journalistic and personal material unlawfully seized by police, and called for senior officers to be held to account.
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey visited a police station in south Belfast to collect their possessions in a white van, hours after detectives dramatically dropped their investigation into them.
Representatives of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Amnesty International held banners in support of the duo.
Police were forced by judges to return laptops, hard drives, mobile phones, notepads and millions of digital files seized from their homes and office.
The outcome of last week’s challenge in the civil courts, which ruled search warrants used by police unlawful, prompted officers to announce late on Monday that the criminal probe into the film-makers was being discontinued.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey were arrested last August over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film on a notorious loyalist massacre during the Northern Ireland Troubles.
The reporters, who insist the material on the Loughinisland killings came from an anonymous whistleblower, had been on bail ever since.
Mr McCaffrey said they were treated like criminals.
“Our names were dragged through the mud. Trevor’s children were forced to watch him being arrested and taken away, an eight-year-old girl.
“Was this necessary? Why did this have to happen?”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) asked Durham Constabulary to investigate the alleged theft.
Both organisations confirmed on Monday that the reporters were no longer under investigation, although they said the wider probe would continue.
Mr McCaffrey said he had still not received an apology from the heads of either organisation for their treatment.
He criticised how the judge who granted the search warrant of their office and homes was directed by officers.
“This cannot be allowed to happen. Somebody has to be held to account. This is not right.”
Among the items returned on Tuesday were Mr Birney’s wife’s phone and his daughter’s pink phone.
He said: “The key thing that you can see is finally my daughter is getting her little lollypop USB stick back, which apparently has her GCSE homework coursework on.
“These were obviously critical to the investigation into myself and Barry and what we are meant to have done.
“It tells you everything you need to know about this investigation.”
He said those who directed, led and oversaw what the police were doing had questions to answer.
“This investigation really had no focus other than sending a chill factor to journalists and no matter who got caught up in that, whether it was my children or Barry’s family.”
He asked: “What is the evidential value of a pink phone, a USB stick and a lollypop USB stick?
“It is ridiculous, it is laughable, and I think there have to be questions asked and answers given – people have to be held to account.”
Mr Birney said it was a “fishing expedition” which the High Court had “eviscerated” in a damning indictment of the leadership of the PSNI.
Three senior judges in Belfast quashed warrants used by police to seize a wide range of journalistic material from early morning raids on the men’s homes and their film company, Fine Point.
Their 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned broke new ground by naming suspects it said were involved in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) killings of six Catholic men gathered in a village pub watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV.
Rebuilding public confidence must be a priority for the incoming PSNI chief constable, Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said.
Former Cheshire Police chief Simon Byrne takes over soon.
Mrs O’Neill said: “He is taking up office at a time when public confidence in the PSNI’s ability to police with the community in an open, effective and balanced way has been severely damaged by a number of recent cases.
“The failure to disclose all relevant information relating to loyalist atrocities and the arrest of investigative journalists who exposed the state’s role in the Loughinsland massacre are just the most recent examples that have cast serious doubt on the PSNI’s credibility and impartiality.”