VILNIUS (Reuters) - An Irish citizen sentenced to 12 years in prison in Lithuania for trying to arm a Northern Irish Republican militant group was freed on Tuesday by a court of appeal.
Michael Campbell, 41, was arrested in the Baltic state in January 2008 after a sting operation involving Lithuanian, Irish and British secret services.
Lithuania's Court of Appeal overturned the sentence on Wednesday, deciding British security services had illegally encouraged Campbell to go to Lithuania to attempt to buy arms and explosives.
"Campbell had no plans of his own to go to Lithuania and did not even know where the country was," presiding Judge Viktoras Kazys told the court in announcing his decision.
"When shown its location on a map by an undercover MI5 agent, he kept mistaking Ukraine for Lithuania."
The Lithuanian prosecutor in charge of Campbell's case said he would appeal to the Supreme Court, the highest instance of appeal in the Baltic country.
Campbell was sentenced in October 2009 on charges of attempting to acquire arms and smuggle them out of Lithuania and for aiding a "terrorist organization", the Real IRA.
The Real IRA is a splinter group that rejects the Irish Republican Army's 1998 decision to abandon its armed struggle for an end to British control of Northern Ireland and unification with Ireland.
The appeals court on Tuesday ruled that Campbell had not initiated the arms trade, but rather only attempted to carry it out after being encouraged by undercover British secret service agents from MI5.
The court said testimony by Campbell's MI5 handlers claiming he approached them for the weapons trade on his own accord was not sufficient proof. No evidence of Campbell's actions in Ireland was given to the court by British or Irish officers.
"This shows us that either the evidence was obtained illegally, or that it would prove that Campbell was provoked," Kazys said.
A senior British security source said British authorities were deeply disappointed by the Lithuanian court decision but declined further comment.
Campbell, who was brought into trial handcuffed and followed by four policemen, said he felt vindicated by the verdict and intended to return to Ireland as soon as possible.
He told Reuters he was considering lodging complaints against MI5 and Lithuania. "That will be something that we will decide later on," he said.
The Irish Justice Ministry declined comment on Campbell's case. A ministry spokesman said that in general, Irish police continuously monitor the activities of paramilitary groups to curb their activities and prosecute their members as needed.
A 1998 peace and power-sharing deal between pro-republic Catholics and pro-Britain Protestants in Northern Ireland put an end to the worst of decades of violence.
(Reporting by Andrius Sytas via Stockholm newsroom, Michael Holden in London and Sam Cage in Dublin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)