Sunday, October 31, 2010

book on the ricin terror plot "that never was"

Ricin! The Terror Plot that Never Was
Susannah Tarbush

[original of article published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat newspaper on 30 October 2010]

Ricin! The Inside Story of the Terror Plot that Never Was
by Lawrence Archer & Fiona Bawdon
published by Pluto Press of London and New York
206 pages, 2010

The so-called “ricin plot” is a major terrorism case that came to trial in Britain in 2005, during the “war on terror” era that followed the September 11 2001 terror attacks in the USA. Ricin is a poison that is extracted from the beans of the castor oil [zeit al-khirwa’] plant. Anti-terror police uncovered an alleged “ricin factory” when, on 5 January 2003, they raided a flat above a pharmacy in the Wood Green area of North London after a tip-off from the Algerian authorities.

On 8 January 2003 the media reported that the anti-terror police had found ricin in the flat and that Britain was under threat of a poison attack. The front page of the tabloid Daily Mirror newspaper consisted of a picture of a skull and crossbones superimposed on a map of Britain, with the headline: “Deadly Poison Found in Britain: It’s Here! ” No fewer than six inside pages of the newspaper were devoted to coverage of the “ricin plot”.

And yet, as would be shown during the “ricin trial”, there never was any ricin in the flat.

Both the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Secretary of State Colin Powell used the uncovering of an alleged Al-Qaeda “ricin cell”, and the finding of ricin, to strengthen their case for the necessity of military action against Iraq which began on 20 March.

In his 5 February 2003 speech on Iraq before the UN Security Council, Colin Powell said the “ricin cell” was part of an international network linking Al-Qaeda, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and Iraq. He said information on the “UK poison cell” had come from a “detained Al-Qaeda operative”.

Powell did not name the detained operative, but he is assumed to be an Algerian named Mohammed Meguerba who had been arrested and released on bail in Britain in September 2002. He had fled Britain and ended up in Algeria where he was captured, interrogated, and probably tortured. The Algerian secret police warned Britain on 31 December 2002 that a poison gas attack was to happen in the next few days.

As well as being used to strengthen the case for military action against Iraqi, the ricin case was also used as part of arguments for tougher anti-terror legislation which reduced civil liberties.

In the “ricin trial” that began in September 2004 five Algerians were each accused of “conspiracy to murder”, and “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance”. It was planned that this first ricin trial would be followed by a second trial of a further four Algerians.

The trial by jury lasted seven months, and cost £20 million Sterling. Evidence from the government military research establishment Porton Down during the trial showed that there had in fact been no ricin in the flat.

Expectations were high among the British government, police and security services that the trial would result in all five defendants being convicted, and that this would be seen as a major success in the “war on terror”.

There was therefore shock when on 8 April 2005, after the jury had deliberated for 17 days, the foreman of the jury Laurence Archer [pictured] rose in court and announced “not guilty” verdicts on four of the five accused: Mouloud Sihali, David Khalef, Sidali Feddag and Mustapha Taleb.

The jury did find the fifth defendant, Kamel Bourgass, guilty of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance by using explosives or poisons to spread fear or disruption. The judge sentenced him to 17 years in prison.

But on the other, more serious, charge facing Bourgass – that of conspiracy to murder – the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Plans for the second trial of four further Algerians were abandoned, as were plans to retry Bourgass on the conspiracy to murder charge.

After the trial ended, Lawrence Archer and some other members of the trial jury remained deeply concerned by various aspects of the trial and by the inaccurate and exaggerated media coverage. They realised that the British authorities were treating the four Algerians men the jury had acquitted as if they were still terror suspects. It was as if the authorities considered that the jury had reached the “wrong” verdicts.

The jury members came to know of things of which they had been ignorant during the trial. For example they had not known that Bourgass was already serving a 22-year prison sentence for stabbing to death a policeman, Stephen Oake, and wounding three other policemen, during their attempt to arrest him in the northern English city of Manchester on 14 January 2003. Bourgass’s trial and conviction for this murder had taken place in 2004, but it had not been reported in the media so as not to prejudice the ricin trial.

When Archer and some of his fellow jurors found that the men they had acquitted were threatened with deportation to Algeria, they spoke out in newspaper interviews and TV documentaries under conditions of anonymity.

And in an amazing extending of the hand of friendship towards the men they had acquitted, they even decided to try and meet them. Around a year after the trial ended Archer and other two jurors succeeded in meeting Mustapha Taleb, at his asylum hearing, and some days later they had lunch with Sihali [pictured below] and Khalef and discussed the case. Since then Archer and another juror have regularly visited Sihali and have become warm friends with him as he fights British government plans to deport him to Algeria.

Now Lawrence Archer has co-written a book with legal journalist Fiona Bawdon, newly published by the London publisher Pluto Press under the title “Ricin! The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was”. The famous human rights lawyer, Queen’s Counsel Michael Mansfield, who defended Sihali during the trial, wrote the foreword to the book.

The book claims to tell for the first time the full story of the so-called “ricin plot” and trial, and of what has become of the four defendants since the jury acquitted them. It is thought to be the first-ever book on a British court case written by a former juror (although stringent legal rules control the confidentiality of juries, and Archer was not permitted to write any details of the jury’s discussions in the jury room during the trial).

Archer is a 56-year-old telecommunications engineer with no previous history of political activism. He told Al-Hayat that the trial had been a life-changing experience. Before the trial he had not been particularly interested in politics, apart from voting in elections. “The trial process made me query a lot more things, and I am definitely more politically aware.”

At the launch of the book at a reception in central London, Fiona Bawdon told the guests: “I don’t think anyone who knows the story of the Ricin plot trial can fail to be shocked at the way this case was hijacked by politicians, by the police, by the security services, and at the impact this continues to have on the lives of the acquitted defendants.”

Among the guests at the launch were some of Britain’s most prominent human rights lawyers. In addition to Mansfield they included Mrs Gareth Pierce, Imran Khan, Louise Christian, Matthew Ryder, and the Palestinian Queen’s Counsel Michel Abdel Massih who defended Bourgass. Among the other guests was Mouloud Sihali.

The previous Labour government took steps to reduce the right to trial by jury, and to allow for certain trials to be heard by judges only. Bawdon said the positive aspect of the ricin case it that it was “the most powerful riposte to those who seek to chisel away at the jury system, or who argue that juries are somehow a luxury we can’t afford any more, particularly in the current environment, or that jurors somehow are not equipped to really understand complex cases or to deal with highly politically charged issues.”

Bawdon said the jurors were just about the only ones who did actually understand the case while everybody else got swept away with the hysteria around the “Factory of Death” and the newspaper headlines. “The jury looked at the evidence and came up with the conclusions that they did and I think that that is something we should be very proud of, and that we should celebrate and also should be prepared to defend.”

In his foreword Mansfield raises eight “disturbing” unanswered questions of public importance around the case, which have “serious implications for the integrity of our political and judicial systems.”

For example why did Tony Blair and Colin Powell fail to correct their misrepresentations about the existence of “ricin” in the build-up to the Iraq war? And on what basis did the Metropolitan Police and the then Home Secretary Charles come to use the ricin case as part of the justification for calling for the 90-day detention of terror suspects without charge?

The media had been excluded from most of the ricin trial so as not to prejudice the trial of four other Algerians in the planned (but later abandoned) second ricin trial. Archer and his fellow jurors found that much of the press reporting after the trial ended was inaccurate and exaggerated. The media described Bourgass as an Al-Qaeda operative. In the words of the tabloid Sun, Bourgass was “Osma Bin-laden’s master poisoner – with a mission to murder as many Britons as possible.” But in fact a link between the accused men and Al-Qaeda had never been made in court during the trial.

As was confirmed during the trial, ricin was not found in the Wood Green flat. So where did the reports of ricin originate? It is true that when the Wood Green flat was raided, an initial test by a scientist from Porton Down found a weak positive indication for ricin in a pestle and mortar. But further tests for ricin carried out two days later at Porton Down came out negative. There was no ricin in the flat.

Bizarrely, Porton Down failed to inform the police or government ministers of the negative result for ricin until more than two months later, on 20 March 2003. Why this long delay? And even then the government and police did not publicly correct the previous reports that ricin had been found.

Even though the anti-terror police did not find ricin in the flat they did find suspicious material including handwritten recipes for poison and explosives, in Bourgass’s handwriting. They also found 22 castor beans, a small number of cherry stones and apple seeds, acetone and equipment to weigh and measure and thermometers. There was also more than £4,000 in cash.

Bourgass had written out recipes not only for ricin but for cyanide (from fruit seeds), botulinum (from rotting meat), nicotine poison (“cigarette poison”) and solanine (“potato poison”). Police also found a Nivea skin cream pot containing a brown sludge which may have been the product of an attempt to make nicotine poison.

Meguerba had “confessed” to the Algerians under interrogation that he and Bourgass had trained as poison experts in terror camps in Afghanistan. It was alleged that the recipes Bourgass had copied came from a Al-Qaeda website or manual, but the recipes were crude and investigative journalist Duncan Campbell presented evidence during the trial that they came from right-wing and survivalist websites in America. Though clearly Bourgass and Meguerba had been up to no good, they were amateurs rather than skilled operatives.

During the trial Bourgass tried to shift all blame to Meguerba. Meguerba’s fingerprints were all over the poison recipes, and Bourgass said during the trial that the suspicious items in the Wood Green flat had belonged to Meguerba. Bourgass claimed he had copied the recipes only at the request of Meguerba who wanted villagers in the Setif region of Algeria to use them to protect themselves.

In their book Archer and Bawdon describe Meguerba (in a reference to the Shakespeare play “Macbeth”) as the “ghost at the feast” at the trial. Although he was physically not at the trial, but held in Algeria, even in his absence he overshadowed the proceedings “with the prosecution portraying him as the shadowy and dangerous mastermind behind the plot.”

When police had arrested and then released Meguerba on bail in September 2002 they had found Sihali’s address in his wallet and had subsequently arrested Sihali and Khalef who were found to have false passports. Sihali and Khalef were both charged under the Terrorism Act and held in Belmarsh high security prison awaiting trial. Sihali received 15 months sentences for each of his false passports.

Khalef also had photocopies of poison recipes and explosives handwritten in Arabic, which would later be found to be photocopies of what Bourgass had copied.

Meguerba’s “confession” in Algeria was the basis on which arrests that led to the ricin trial were made. But how reliable was his “evidence” under interrogation, and quite possibly under torture? The jury was often been sent out of court for long periods during the trial while the judge and lawyers held legal arguments on what evidence was allowed to be used in court. In the end Meguerba’s evidence was not used in court after the judge decided it was inadmissible. The prosecution lawyer Nigel Sweeney said Meguerba was a liar and his evidence unreliable.

Archer and Bawdon do not paint the Algerian defendants as angels. Only one of them (Mustapha Taleb, who had been given political asylum in 2000) was in Britain legally. The book places the men in the context of the savage Algerian civil war, during which many young Algerians left their country. Many of them had false passports and forged identity documents and multiple identities – which especially after 9/11 would be seen as very suspicious.

The book repeatedly gives example of misleading and inaccurate media coverage. Overblown media coverage in relation to Sihali and Khalef started before the ricin “factory” find, after Sihali and Khalef were arrested in September 2002 and charged with possessing false identity documents.

On 17 November 2002, the day before Sihali and Khalef were due to make a court appearance in relation to the false identity documents, newspapers described the two as suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists who planned to gas an underground train, release cyanide or plant a dirty bomb on a ferry.

It is still not clear where these lurid stories came from.

The then Home Secretary David Blunkett dismissed the reports of gas attacks as “nonsense” but added that the police had picked up those who “were planning to set up a cell to threaten our country”. In fact they were only charged with having false passports. It was unwise for a Home Secretary to make such comments, as they could have compromised a future trial.

The book examines the fate of each of the four men the jury acquitted. Of the four it is Sidali Feddag – who was only 17 at the time of the trial – who has most successfully rebuilt his life. He has married a British-born Algerian woman and is studying for a law degree while working in a pizza parlour and waiting for the outcome of his asylum application.

In October 2008 Khalef was given the right to stay in the UK for five years, a term which will be extended if he keeps out of trouble.

But things have been more difficult for Sihali and Taleb. On 15 September 2005, two months after the four suicide bombings in London on 7 July in which 52 innocent people were killed, police raided the homes of Sihal and Taleb, told them they were a threat to national security and gave them deportation orders. They were held in Belmarsh high security prison for four months, without charge, and on their release were subjected to the harsh form of house arrest known as “control orders.” Their struggle not to be deported back to Algeria has taken place under the controversial Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) in which intelligence is heard in secret. Over the past five years, Taleb has been held at various times in Long Lartin prison or at home under control orders.

SIAC ruled in May 2007 that Sihali is not a threat to national security, but he still faces a threat of being deported. In May 2010 he lost his appeal against deportation, but he was recently granted the right to appeal against this SIAC decision.