Secret evidence in the case of the North West 10 “terror suspects”

5.8.09

The statue of Justice on the Old BaileyThe following account of a hearing last week in SIAC (the Special Immigration Appeals Commission), regarding the bail hearings of seven Pakistani students seized in April as part of a round-up of twelve men in connection with a purported “terror plot,” was written by Maude Casey, a campaigner from Brighton, who was the only non-legal observer in the public gallery.

I am reproducing it unedited, as I believe that Maude, as a first-time visitor to SIAC, has captured perfectly the surreal imitation of justice that takes place in Britain’s secret terror court. I also believe it is important that a public account of the hearing is made available, as few major media outlets reported on the cases last week (exceptions were the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and Channel 4 News), even though no evidence has been produced to justify the hysteria that attended the announcement of the “plot” back in April (when Prime Minster Gordon Brown declared that it was “a very big terrorist plot”), and the men in question are being held on the basis of secret evidence that they are unable to challenge.

As with the cases of other “terror suspects,” held under control orders or on deportation bail, it appears that, in general, the British media is unconcerned that foreign nationals — and, in the cases of some of the control order detainees, British nationals — can be subjected to a secretive facsimile of justice that bears no resemblance to the rest of Britain’s legal system, so long as the magic words “Islam” and “terrorism” are invoked.

Courts of injustice
By Maude Casey

Until last week, I had never been to the Royal Courts of Justice. In Britain, our justice system has long been a beacon to the world. Here, the most knotty legal conundrums are patiently untangled in a public chamber, in the clear light of reason before an impartial judge, and assessed by a jury which constitutes the ears, eyes and voice of our fellow citizens. These public chambers are freely accessible to members of the public: all have a public gallery where anyone can sit and listen to the proceedings. Everything is transparent; Justice is blind to the prejudices and unmotivated by the interests of either side in each particular case. I had often intended to come and see this for myself.

Certainly the building itself speaks of something like this, in a language of soaring stone and lofty oak. The highest court in the land, it is an edifice carved by rationality, etched by wisdom and gravitas. Voices are low here; the acoustics carry them far. This much was obvious as I waited at the enquiry desk while the helpful young attendant made call after call on his desk phone to find out which court he should direct me to.

I had decided to come to attend the bail appeals of seven young Pakistani students seized from their university libraries in April this year. I had been shocked by the sight of police in paramilitary uniforms, resembling nothing less than storm troopers, dragging students from the halls of academe. I had heard that Manchester Police had subsequently released all of the students without charge, the Chief Constable stating that he could find not a shred of evidence against them. Great was my subsequent astonishment therefore, when I heard that the Home Secretary had subsequently issued them with deportation orders, that their applications for bail had been refused and that they have been held as Category “A” prisoners ever since. And now their appeals for bail were to be heard in a special court: the Special Immigration Appeal Court, or SIAC.

One of the North West 10 "terror suspects" seized at gunpoint in Liverpool's John Moores University, April 2009

One of the North West 10 “terror suspects,” seized at gunpoint in Liverpool’s John Moores University in April 2009.

SIAC aren’t anything to do with us, the young man at the enquiry desk said. They just use our courts. And sometimes they close our courts to the public. It was difficult for him to find out where he should send me, or — rather alarmingly — whether in fact I was allowed to be there at all, but eventually, after many calls, he directed me to two possibilities: Court 28 on the ground floor, and Court 4 upstairs.

Court 28 was closed to the public; Court 4 was just reconvening after lunch. I was the only person in the public gallery. As I accustomed myself to being in this space which speaks of a closed world, with its walls of beautifully bound Law Reports, its oaken panelling, its flamboyantly carved lion, unicorn and regal coat of arms above the judge’s crimson velvet throne, I began to experience a most extraordinary welter of impressions, an eerie sense of witnessing a previously- scripted narrative unfold.

The solicitor of Shoaib Khan, one of the young men who was sitting in the prisoners’ cage in the company of two prison guards, was making a statement to Judge Mitting, as follows: “Your Honour, in regard to the Secretary of State’s assertion that my client is concerned in international Islamist activity, I will say that my client has a beard. He is a practising Muslim. He goes to prayer at the Mosque. He attends prayer meetings. He will continue these activities. He should not be penalised for practising normal Muslim activities.”

The evidence against the other young man in the dock, Abdul Wahab Khan, appeared equally ghostly. There are videos of him dancing and playing cricket: this means they were at a training camp. They went on a two-hour drive to a beach in Wales: this means they were involved in a terrorist plot. Another of the young men wrote emails to his girlfriend, in which the words “crystal clear” obviously refer to a bomb-making substance in code and “weak and difficult to convince” is code for a low concentration of hydrogen peroxide. And of course, as the Secretary of State has pointed out, they participate in activities carried out by a network of Islamists worldwide: they are room-mates; they pray, they meet other students; they have beards and brown skins.

I felt extremely uncomfortable listening to these arguments. I felt shocked by the resonance of racist rhetoric, amazed by the Alice in Wonderland tone of the absurd.  And I felt a sense of incredulity at the flavour of Orwellian double-speak. I could not believe I was hearing arguments like this go unchallenged in the supposedly rational spaces of a British court.

But then as I looked around and saw no jury, no judge gowned and bewigged like his colleagues in the adjacent court chambers, no proceedings in which defence is evenly balanced against prosecution, I realised that I was witnessing something new in a British court: a court which is not a court, a hearing in which voices speak but no one hears them, because, somewhere far away, minds have already been made up.

And the most menacing aspect of the proceedings was their air of apparent normality. Around the chamber, men chatted quietly and amicably, amiable with that sense of entitlement of men who stretch out their arms on the backs of seats in panelled rooms, sharing a language from which we are excluded. And as the Judge departed to examine evidence no one was allowed to see, no one stood up and asked, “Why? How can they defend themselves if they cannot see the evidence against them?”

The students are part of what Gordon Brown at the time declared to be “a very big terrorist plot,” and yet the Chief Constable of Manchester Police has stated that there was not a shred of evidence against them. At one point I even heard Judge Mitting himself say to the appellants’ solicitors that the strongest argument for their case is this: if there was a big plot to blow something up, how come, after all this time, there is no evidence of any explosives or planning?

The solicitors provided considerable evidence for the innocence of their clients: impeccable academic references; references from landlords; references from local cricket teams; from a UN-funded project in Pakistan; from family members in the US and UK willing to put up their businesses as surety and buy houses in Liverpool for the students to live in under any terms that the Secretary of State might decide. They are willing to wear tags. They will observe any curfew. They will satisfy any bail conditions the Secretary of State might impose.

Furthermore, the solicitors pointed out that as recently as last week the hearings of the original nine students were reduced to seven as two of them were released without explanation [although they are still “required to wear electronic tags as the Home Office still wants to deport them due to visa irregularities,” as the BBC reported]. If suddenly these two are not deemed a security risk, even though the evidence against them is shared by the remaining seven, then how come these remaining seven are considered to be so dangerous? If bail conditions of varying severity are containing these two released young men, why can’t they contain the remaining seven?

It was at this point that the proceedings became chilling, as they assumed the full appearance of a charade. In this court, which is somehow not a court, the Secretary of State’s solicitor made his position clear: The emails of appellant XC to his girlfriend proves that he is the lynchpin of a terrorist network. The other appellants are his associates. If the Secretary of State is right, and if the advice of the Secretary of State’s security advisers is right, we must continue to oppose bail as there has been no change in their assessment that these appellants continue to pose a grave security risk. In contrast to the appellants’ cases, no evidence was provided — apart from this spectral hypothetical. Am I alone in finding this shocking?

Simon Jackson QC mentioned further grounds to support the bail applications, including the letters from educational establishments. However, it emerged that the judge had not received these. Jackson said that they had been made available to Mr. McCullough, the Special Advocate appointed by the government. Am I alone in finding it shocking that this evidence had not been made available to the Judge? In the court, as photocopies were made, it felt even more like a charade, in which evidence was presented but not listened to, because the verdict had already been decided.

The Judge adjourned to see some evidence provided by the Secretary of State in a closed chamber. This evidence is so secret that neither the appellants nor their solicitors were allowed to see it. At this point, the group of lawyers from around the world, who had arrived in the public gallery during the afternoon’s proceedings, asked questions of each other and of me with great puzzlement: so is it really true that the defendants are not allowed to know what evidence is being held against them? In a British Court? But this would not be allowed in my country. This is very strange. Yes, I agreed, it is very strange.

Upon Judge Mitting’s return, he spoke very briefly. In none of these cases do we admit bail. The reasons will be given in writing. The appellants will return to their cells. We will hear all their cases together on 8th March next year.

So here are the facts: none of these seven young men has been charged with anything. If they decide to allow themselves to be deported, they will face the suspicion of terrorist activity in Pakistan, for, after all, if Britain, the cynosure of Justice globally, has found that they pose a grave security risk, then surely they must be terrorists. At worst they could face torture, at best: shame in their families and communities and the devastation of promising careers. They have missed all their lectures since April and they have been unable to sit their exams, despite the requests of their universities. Returned to jail until March as Category “A” prisoners, they are considered to pose the gravest danger to the country. They can be regularly strip-searched and locked up in solitary confinement; their visitors must be cleared by the Home Office, a process which can take months. Innocent of any charge, they are the victims of a hypothetical fantasy; they have been forced to enter a Kafkaesque maze of control from which there appears to be no escape.

Am I alone in believing that this is profoundly shocking? Am I alone in having a faint suspicion that these young men are in prison for the same reason that kept the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four incarcerated for sixteen years: to cover up a stupid mistake on the part of the security services and to enable powerful men to save face? Shame on a system that can decide that young men are guilty of something which no one is allowed to know, based on evidence which is so secret as to be invisible. And from being seven individual young men, they have somehow become fused together into a single unit.

The whole thing would be hilarious were it not for the terrifying fact that these young men really are locked up, right now, as you are reading this, and will continue to be so for the next 213 days, until the date of their next hearing. It would be hilarious were it not for the fact that Janas Khan, one of the students released before this hearing — for reasons which, from where I was sitting, had been concealed from his legal team — is now alone in a town in the north west of England, tagged and obliged to clock in with the private company which administers the tagging system several times a day. He has four assignments to complete for his university, as he could not complete them in prison. He is enduring a menacing system of control, contained by a curfew which eliminates the possibility of the normal social life to which every innocent human being is entitled.

And so they will remain, unless they leave Britain voluntarily, their names besmirched, their academic careers at an end, carrying the stigma of terrorism into a country whose human rights record gives cause for grave concern. They wish to remain here in order to obtain their degrees and to clear their names; they believed Britain’s justice system to be the best in the world, a system in which their cases would be heard impartially and openly, the evidence carefully weighed. Instead, what they are experiencing is this new system, where a hearing is not a hearing, because nobody listens, in a secret chamber which is no court of justice but a scandalous charade, in which the clear light of reason is clouded by shame. The time has come to remove this farce from the field of the normal and to see it for what it is: a sinister travesty against which our voices must be raised.

This is not a hearing: no one is listening. This is not justice: it is a one-sided charade.

Maude Casey is a campaigner with Brighton Against Guantánamo (formerly the Save Omar campaign). She wrote this article after we met last week, at the launch of the Guantánamo Justice Centre, and she explained that she had been the only non-legal observer during last week’s SIAC hearing. I then said that if she would like to write something, I would publish it on my website, as this is not the first time that the mainstream media has largely ignored the SIAC hearings, and also because I’m happy to use my website to host other people’s articles about the injustice of Britain’s anti-terror laws.

In a note accompanying the article, Maude also wrote:

While campaigning for Omar’s release, and then for Binyam’s [Omar Deghayes and Binyam Mohamed], I have become increasingly concerned at how many of our hard-won civil and human rights have been gradually eroded as part of this War of Terror. I attended Diane Abbott’s meeting on Secret Evidence in the House of Commons, but actually being present in a hearing really brings the injustice home to you. For all we know, these young men may indeed be guilty of organising a “big plot,” although I have to say that I doubt it, having heard the open evidence; however the fact is that in a just society they should have the opportunity of a fair trial and the right to clear their names. As a mother, I found it very easy to empathise with their worries about their studies and their reputations, and the thought of them being incarcerated under those conditions for over two hundred more days makes me unable to feel complacent.

Note: Please visit the website “Justice for the North West 10” for more information, and see here for a Channel 4 interview with Janas Khan, on July 19, in which C4 explained that, although Khan was told that “he was no longer considered a threat to national security … he is still being made to wear an electronic tag and is facing deportation.” For the background to the circumstances in which the raid in April took place, and the subsequent resignation of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism chief Bob Quick, who had been photographed arriving at Downing Street with “top secret” documents about the plot visible under his arm, see this report in the Guardian. For another analysis, see this Press Association report in the Independent. Also of interest are the remarks of Khaled Rahman, director of the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, in an interview with Radio France Internationale, after a row broke out between the British and Pakistani governments regarding the vetting of Pakistani students visiting the UK to study. Rahman said, “Pakistani people would like to have some really credible evidence available to them because the happenings so far have not been proved in any court of law in most of the cases.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportations and extraditions, see Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees (August 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed (February 2008), Spanish drop “inhuman” extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009), Britain’s insane secret terror evidence (March 2009), Torture taints all our lives (published in the Guardian’s Comment is free), Britain’s Guantánamo: Calling For An End To Secret Evidence, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (1) Detainee Y, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (2) Detainee BB, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (3) Detainee U, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (4) Hussain Al-Samamara, Five Stories From Britain’s Guantánamo: (5) Detainee Z, Britain’s Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction? and URGENT APPEAL on British terror laws: Get your MP to support Diane Abbott’s Early Day Motion on the use of secret evidence (all April 2009), and Taking liberties with our justice system and Death in Libya, betrayal in the West (both for the Guardian), Law Lords Condemn UK’s Use of Secret Evidence And Control Orders (June 2009), Miliband Shows Leadership, Reveals Nothing About Torture To Parliamentary Committee (June 2009), Britain’s Torture Troubles: What Tony Blair Knew (June 2009), Seven years of madness: the harrowing tale of Mahmoud Abu Rideh and Britain’s anti-terror laws, Would you be able to cope?: Letters by the children of control order detainee Mahmoud Abu Rideh, Control order detainee Mahmoud Abu Rideh to be allowed to leave the UK (all June 2009), Testing control orders and Dismantle the secret state (for the Guardian), UK government issues travel document to control order detainee Mahmoud Abu Rideh after horrific suicide attempt (July 2009).

5 Responses

  1. David Mery says...

    I attended SIAC, also for the first time, on the Monday afternoon – for one hour until the court adjourned in secret. It was fascinating and scary: the amount of legal guns (and cost) involved to argue about the possible coded meaning of eight email messages (open evidence) taken out of context, and realising the (controlled) freedom of a young student (XC) was fully hanging on this.

    The judge was clear that he was going to deny bail unless it could be proven that the Home Office assertion that the students are a security risk is wrong. Proving a negative, without access to (most of) the evidence, doesn’t appear to be fair justice.

    Another relevant article is at http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/world/13+bail+pleas+of+7+students+rejected+in+britain-za-14

    Also, there’s more on secret evidence at http://coalitionagainstsecretevidence.com/

    Practical tip: if you intend to attend a SIAC hearing, you can find out in which room it will sit by checking the ‘hearing list’ published in the latest news section on http://www.siac.tribunals.gov.uk/

    br -d

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David, for the concise appraisal of what’s wrong, and for the links. Always good to hear from you.

  3. The Antagonist says...

    Great article.

    In June of 2009 there was a “historic” and unanimous law lords ruling that stated it was “unlawful” to use “secret evidence”. From the Guardian:

    Secret evidence on terror suspects ruled illegal
    • Judgment puts future of control orders in doubt
    • Law lords say regime breaches human rights
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/jun/10/secret-evidence-legal-status
    ….
    The law lords said that unless a suspect was given “sufficient information about the allegations against him to enable him to give effective instructions to the special advocate” – the vetted lawyer supposed to represent their interests at closed hearings – their right to a fair trial under article six of the European convention on human rights would be breached.

    It is worth noting that the use of secret evidence does not just apply to ‘terror’ ‘suspects’ but is also being used against one Harry Roberts, a prisoner who served the 30 year tariff issued to him in 1966 yet still finds himself in prison some 13 years after his recommended 30 year tariff expired. Roberts has not been allowed to know what the charges against him are and finds himself in the the same Kafkaesque situation as many ‘terror’ ‘suspects’, endeavouring to defend himself against the unknown.

    It is interesting and telling that the government has set about revoking some of the heinous control orders it has has imposed, rather than reveal any of the ‘compelling’ secret evidence that it claims justifies otherwise baseless methods of repression and subjugation.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for getting in touch. I covered the Lords’ ruling here:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/06/13/law-lords-condemn-uks-use-of-secret-evidence-and-control-orders/
    However, I had not heard about the case of Harry Roberts until now. Thanks for sharing that.
    And as for the control orders, you’re absolutely right to remark on how the “compelling” secret evidence has turned out to be rather less “compelling” when the government is required to really examine it. The next step is for the Lords’ ruling to apply to those held on deportation bail — and presumably government officials are already sitting around discussing levels of dangerousness, which rather undermines the whole system in the first place …

  5. Calling Time On The Use Of Secret Evidence In The UK by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] in the case of two “terror suspects.” One man, XC, is a 23-year old Pakistani student and one of the North West 10 (students rounded up in connection with a wildly hyped and seemingly unsubstantiated terror plot in [...]

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