The Ricin Plot, and Why the Government’s Terrorism Review Ignores the Dangers of Secret Evidence

27.1.11

With fortunate timing, an event is taking place tonight at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in London, which sheds light on an unjust, but largely unexplored corner of the government’s counter-terrorism policies that was not mentioned in the policy changes announced yesterday by Home Secretary Theresa May.

As I explain in a separate article to be published soon, although the review has led to a decison to rebrand control orders — a form of house arrest, introduced in 2005 and used to hold men without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence — allowing the men in question (currently, eight British nationals) slightly more freedom than previously, the rebranding fails to discuss the fundamental problem with holding men on the basis of secret evidence, and also fails to address what will happen to foreign terror suspects, imprisoned or held on deportation bail in circumstances similar to the control orders, who are also held without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence.

Tonight’s Amnesty event, “Ricin! the inside story of the plot that never was,” follows the recent publication of a book of the same name, written by Lawrence Archer (the foreman of the jury in the ricin trial of 2004) and journalist Fiona Bawdon, exposing how the trial, which lasted seven months, and led to the acquital of four of the five defendants, revealed that there was no plot, and also, crucially, revealed in detail the dangerous incompetence of the security services and the manipulation of a false “terror plot” for political aims.

Where this ties in with the counter-terrorism review is a bleak tale that deserves to be disseminated as widely as possible. As Amnesty’s introduction to the event states, “Weeks later the freed men were threatened with deportation to Algeria, despite the jury’s not guilty verdicts. To date only one man has been granted the right to remain in the UK. Two of the men were re-arrested in 2005 and held under control order conditions, accused of being threats to national security, largely based on rehashed evidence from the ricin trial. With juries in terrorism cases constantly under threat by successive governments, this trial is a compelling example of the continuing need for a jury.”

One of those men — Mustapha Taleb (also known as Detainee Y) — is still held pending deportation, on the basis of secret evidence, despite having already been acquited by a jury, and he recently wrote poignantly about the painful isolation he endures as a detainee on deportation bail, living alone and subjected to curfews and restrictions that, in his case, and those of others held on deportation bail, were not addressed by the counter-terrorism review, which focused only on the alleged — and bitterly disputed — safety of “diplomatic assurances” intended to guarantee the men’s humane treatment on their return to their home countries.

Speaking tonight are Michael Mansfield QC, who successfully represented Mouloud Sihali in the ricin trial, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, Julian Hayes, a solicitor who represented Sidali Feddag in the ricin trial, Lawrence Archer, and Diane Abbott MP, who, in 2009, publicly challenged the use of secret evidence, hosting a parliamentary meeting and raising an Early Day Motion in the Commons. The event will be chaired by journalist Peter Oborne.

Below, I’m cross-posting an article written by Lawrence Archer when his book was published last autumn, which provides the necessary context for concluding that, despite the government’s tinkering with control orders, its adherence to the need for secret evidence and its marginalization of those facing deportation on the basis of secret evidence demonstrate that it remains wedded to a system that is fundamentally unacceptable in a country that prides itself on open justice, and that, as is revealed in the case of Mustapha Taleb, has led to some deeply questionable conclusions.

Ricin! The plot that never was
By Lawrence Archer, Ceasefire, October 2010

I knew what the buff envelope was as soon as I spotted it on the doormat; another jury summons. My heart sank. I’d served on a jury in an assault case only two years previously and it had been a brutal experience. The CCTV evidence of a young man being struck on the back of the head with an axe still stayed with me. But this new summons was to the Old Bailey: now that could be interesting. As it turned out, it was life changing.

I was to become the jury foreman in the first terrorism trial in Britain since 9/11. The case became known as the Ricin Trial, since the prosecution alleged that a group of Algerian men were conspiring to manufacture explosives and toxins, including the deadly poison ricin, for terrorist purposes.

The case came to court in September 2004. Five men stood in the dock, while a further four were scheduled to be tried in a follow-on trial, the Court Service considering, probably correctly, that prosecuting nine defendants at once would have both crammed the courtroom and confused any jury. The defendants were a disparate bunch, mostly associated with each other through the Finsbury Park mosque.

Although it has since become inextricably linked with terrorism by the presence of the notorious preacher Abu Hamza, the mosque had previously served a different and rather more peaceful purpose, providing a focal point for the large Algerian community who lived in the neighbourhood. Men would meet, socialise, eat, swap information on jobs and lodgings and even sleep at the mosque, although the latter was an informal arrangement and frowned upon by the mosque trustees.

The five Algerian defendants, Kamel Bourgass, Mouloud Sihali, David Khalef, Mustapha Taleb and Sidali Feddag, were all charged on two counts: Conspiracy to murder and “Conspiracy to cause a public nuisance”, a 19th century piece of legislation that had been resurrected by the CPS for the trial.

Information had come into the British authorities in early January 2003 that a group of Algerian terrorists was going to strike the UK imminently. The news understandably caused huge consternation at Scotland Yard and within a matter of days Anti-Terror Branch officers carried out a raid on a property in Wood Green, North London. The shabby one-bed flat, provided for the 17 year old Sidali Feddag whilst his asylum claim was being processed, was searched thoroughly for poisons and explosives.

Feddag had met Kamel Bourgass at the Finsbury Park mosque some months earlier and had offered him accommodation in the flat when he realised Bourgass was homeless. However, Feddag had asked Bourgass to leave a matter of weeks before the raid when his brother needed somewhere to stay. Bourgass had duly obliged, but crucially left many of his possessions behind. Among these were some suspicious items: rubber gloves, thermometers, bottles of chemicals, a small quantity of castor oil seeds (the principle ingredient for making ricin), a large sum of cash and, most damning of all, a hand-written set of recipes for manufacturing a variety of toxins and explosives, contained in a locked sports bag. The recipes were later identified as being written by Bourgass and his fingerprints covered the other suspicious finds.

Scientists from the government research laboratories at Porton Down carried out generic testing for the presence of proteins on some of the items found at the scene. One item, a mortar and pestle, showed a very weak positive reaction to this on-site testing, but later, highly specific tests for ricin, carried out at the laboratory, proved the initial analysis to be misleading. According to the chief scientist, in his evidence to the Old Bailey, he had declared the tests negative. As far as he was concerned, there was no ricin at Wood Green.

A series of arrests followed, although the main suspect, Kamel Bourgass, was missing. Mustapha Taleb was picked up almost immediately, after his fingerprint was discovered on a photocopy of the poison recipes. David Khalef had been arrested some months earlier in Norfolk, found in possession of a copy of the recipes. Mouloud Sihali had been picked up at the same time as Khalef. He had connections with one of the chief suspects in the alleged conspiracy, having let him stay in his flat for a number of weeks.

Despite Porton Down knowing within 48 hours of the raid that there were no toxins found at the scene, the police had somehow been notified of the exact opposite. The ensuing media reports were unequivocal; there was a “factory of death” in Wood Green and a quantity of ricin had been discovered. Government spokesmen confirmed the find, announcing in a public statement that “a small amount of the material recovered from the Wood Green premises has tested positive for the presence of ricin … The Department (of Health) is now alerting the health service, including primary care, about these developments.” Prime Minister Tony Blair weighed in later the same day, announcing to a meeting of British ambassadors in London, “The arrests which were made show this danger is present and real and with us now. Its potential is huge. ”

The startling headlines almost certainly scared Kamel Bourgass into fleeing London. Within a few days he was holed up in a Manchester flat belonging to a distant acquaintance. When police arrived at the flat several days later, entirely coincidentally and in order to detain another man unconnected with the ricin plot, Bourgass was recognised and promptly arrested.

What happened next was withheld from the ricin trial jury, to avoid prejudicing the evidence. Bourgass broke free from the officers guarding him, snatched a knife from the kitchen and attempted to escape.

In the ensuing chaos he violently stabbed police officer Stephen Oake to death and badly wounded several others before he was finally restrained.

Shockingly, the myth of the ricin find was soon to have an even greater effect. Despite the fact that Porton Down knew there was no ricin at Wood Green in early January 2003, Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State, mentioned its definite discovery several weeks later on February 5th, as part of his presentation to the United Nations Security Council. Arguing the case for the invasion of Iraq, Powell cited the Wood Green “find” as a cause for grave concern and linked it to an “Iraq-linked terrorist network”. British and American forces invaded the country within a matter of weeks.

At the end of the ricin trial, which had lasted seven months, cost an estimated £20 million and caused the jury to deliberate for 17 days, Bourgass was convicted on the lesser, although still serious, charge of Conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. The jury were unable to reach a decision on the Conspiracy to murder charge and were eventually discharged. Bourgass had in fact already been convicted of murder and malicious wounding in a previous Old Bailey trial, kept deliberately secret to avoid any press revelations, and was serving a lengthy jail sentence. The other four defendants, Sihali, Taleb, Khalef and Feddag were found not guilty on all charges.

The second, follow on trial collapsed, as the CPS decided there was little realistic hope of any convictions, as much of the evidence alleged against them was linked to the original defendants. While several of the defendants had entered the UK illegally, they had all served enough time in custody to be released after a few days and were let out on normal immigration bail conditions.

A reporting embargo in place since early 2003 had meant that the press had been unable to publicise the case until the verdicts came in. Now, after the jury had announced its decisions, the media had a field day, declaring Bourgass to be “The Toxic Terrorist” and claiming that he had Al-Qaeda connections. The original intelligence given to the British authorities was revealed to have come from another Algerian man, Mohammed Meguerba, who had been interrogated by the DRS, Algeria’s notoriously brutal secret police, who had a fearsome reputation for using torture during their questioning.

While Bourgass was making all the headlines, the other defendants received scant media coverage. The general opinion seemed to be that they had “got away with it”, despite the jury’s lengthy deliberations and Not Guilty verdicts. Politicians and the police were equally disappointed in the jury decisions: there were even mutterings in some quarters that the jury had “gone rogue”. Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced that he would be keeping “a close eye” on the cleared men, while Met Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair told David Frost on his TV show that the law might have to be amended following the verdicts. “I think we’ll just have to look again, to see if there’s some other legislation around ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’ or something of that nature, that’s what we’ll have to do.”

The jury went back to their day jobs, but the story wasn’t over for the cleared defendants. Within weeks, the government announced its intention to deport them to their native country, despite the fact that Algeria had an appalling record on human rights and the defendants had been tarred with the brush of “terrorist”. When it seemed that there might be legal difficulties with the deportation process, the British government attempted to negotiate Memoranda of Understanding with the more contentious countries, including Libya and Algeria. (Libya signed up. Algeria refused, on the grounds that it didn’t go in for mistreatment of detainees, so there really was no need). A lengthy legal battle ensued to derail the deportations, but far worse was to come for two of the men.

Following the 7th July and failed 21st July 2005 bombings on London Transport targets, and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, the British public were understandably jittery, and fear of terrorism was running at fever pitch. New anti-terror legislation was hurriedly put together.

In the early morning of 15th September 2005, coincidentally the same day as Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced plans for 90-day detention of terror suspects, police stormed the properties of Mustapha Taleb and Mouloud Sihali.

Both were detained as “threats to national security”, although neither has ever been charged with any offence or even interviewed by the police. After several months in jail they were both released, subject to strict immigration bail conditions (Control Orders in all but name). Terms of their release included wearing an electronic tag, being curfewed for up to 22 hours a day, limiting their movements to a small geographical area and having their premises searched regularly. Potential visitors had to be vetted and approved by the Home Office.

Sihali eventually had his case heard by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) which rules on foreign deportation matters. In May 2007, SIAC decided that Sihali posed no danger to the British public and lifted his bail conditions, although he remains threatened with deportation to this day and is fighting it through the appeal courts. Mustapha Taleb has not been that fortunate. He was put back in jail for two years, where he was adjudged to be a severe suicide risk by the prison psychiatrist. He currently lives in a provincial town, subjected once again to strict bail conditions and cooped up in a tiny house for 20 hours a day, kept sane by anti-depressant drugs. The British government would like to deport him too, despite the fact that he was granted asylum here in 2000, based on evidence that he had been tortured in Algeria.

David Khalef has been granted leave to remain in the UK and now lives quietly in London. Sidali Feddag is the only one of the cleared defendants with any real sense of achievement after the ricin trial. Impressed by the British jury system, he has gone on to study for a degree in law.

As for me, I was non-political before the case. The ricin trial has changed all that.

Lawrence Archer is a writer and engineer. This is his first book. Fiona Bawdon, who co-wrote the book, is a respected freelance journalist who writes on legal matters.

Ricin! The Inside Story of the Terror Plot that Never Was was released by Pluto Press on 11th October 2010.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportations and extraditions, see 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? (all April 2009), 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), Secret evidence in the case of the North West 10 “terror suspects” (August 2009), Letting go of control orders (for the Guardian, September 2009), Another Blow To Britain’s Crumbling Control Order Regime (September 2009), UK Judge Approves Use of Secret Evidence in Guantánamo Case (November 2009), Calling Time On The Use Of Secret Evidence In The UK (December 2009), Compensation for control orders is a distraction (for the Guardian, January 2010), Control Orders Take Another Blow: Libyan Cartoonist Freed (Detainee DD) (January 2010), Control Orders: Solicitors’ Evidence before the Joint Committee on Human Rights, February 3, 2010 and Control Orders: Special Advocates’ Evidence before the Joint Committee on Human Rights, February 3, 2010 (both February 2010), Will Parliament Rid Us of the Cruel and Unjust Control Order Regime? (February 2010), Don’t renew control orders, CAMPACC, JUSTICE and the Joint Committee on Human Rights tell MPs (February 2010), Fahad Hashmi and Terrorist Hysteria in US Courts (April 2010), 98 MPs Who Supported Human Rights While Countering Terrorism (May 2010), UK Terror Ruling Provides Urgent Test for New Government (May 2010), An uncivilized society (in the Guardian), New letter to MPs asking them to oppose the use of secret evidence in UK courts, and to support the return from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer (May 2010), Torture Complicity Under the Spotlight in Europe (Part One): The UK (July 2010), Fighting Ghosts: An Interview with Husein Al-Samamara (July 2010), Ruling sends message on control orders (for the Guardian, July 2010), UK Judges Endorse Double Standards on Terror Deportations (August 2010), In Memoriam: Faraj Hassan Alsaadi (1980-2010) (August 2010), An interview with Faraj Hassan Alsaadi (from 2007) (August 2010), UK Government Faces Major Rebellion on Control Orders (November 2010), Gareth Peirce Discusses Her New Book, “Dispatches from the Dark Side: On Torture and the Death of Justice” (November 2010), Are Control Orders About To Be Scrapped? (November 2010), Lord Carlile, Discredited Advocate of Control Orders, Presents Flawed Alternative (December 2010).

4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, thanks. In a word, shocking that the British police are so sloppy and driven by moral panic rather than evidence. The evidence I would like to see leaked would be Tony Blair’s micro-management of this fiasco and how he willfully played with peoples’ lives by sharing this with Colin Powell — a feeding frenzy of hysteria.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Willy. Yes, “a feeding frenzy of hysteria” is an apt way to describe how the ricin plot ended up being part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq, along with the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi in Egypt, and so many other lies.

  3. Is 9/11 fear mongering justified? | This Affected Youth says...

    [...] by the experience that he has since written extensively criticising the government.  He describes how within weeks, the government tried to deport them to Algeria, despite its shocking human rights [...]

  4. Is 9/11 fear mongering justified? | alexrickets15 says...

    [...] by the experience that he has since written extensively criticising the government.  He describes how within weeks, the government tried to deport them to Algeria, despite its shocking human [...]

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