Thursday, July 13, 2006

GUILTY OF BEING NOT GUILTY: Exonerated in 'ricin plot' trial, imprisoned at home -- awaiting deportation to a country that tortures

When news of the London ricin ring broke in early 2003, the US newsmedia could not get enough of it.

TIME International wrote in a story entitled "Poisonous Plot:" "Watching the police officers come and go, some of them in protective white suits and masks, and seeing the long hours they spent in the top-floor apartment above a local pharmacy, neighbors in North London's multiracial Wood Green section knew that something big was up."

"A presumed al-Qaeda terror lab had been shut down."

Ricin was said to have been found but the bulk of it was said to be gone. (This would later turn out to be untrue. No ricin had been found, only a jewelry tin containing a handful of castor seeds. But it would remain unpublicized until April of last year because, among other things, the truth was inconvenient to authorities and apparently uninteresting to the general newsmedia.)

"Had terrorists got away with enough of the toxin to launch a strike?" TIME International mused.

The alleged existence of ricin and "the UK poison cell" in January 2003 would subsequently play a part of Colin Powell's presentation as rationale for war against Iraq. In his speech to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003, Powell purported to show how a web of terrorists including the UK cell, was interconnected with Muhamad al Zarqawi, who was said to be directing terrorist plots from the safe refuge of Iraq.

The US government had a theory -- a very airy one, as it eventually turned out -- on the Wood Green ricin ring.

On February 12, for example, CNN reported that Colin Powell had contended the British ricin had actually come from Iraq in a story entitled "Europe skeptical of Iraq-ricin link."

"The ricin that is bouncing around Europe now originated in Iraq -- not in the part of Iraq that is under Saddam Hussein's control, but his security forces know all about it," Colin Powell was alleged to have said.

All of it -- bullshit.

The alleged al Qaeda ricin poisoners swept up in what was called Operation Springbourne were put on trial. Of them, only one -- Kamel Bourgass, a loner who had fiendishly stabbed a British policeman to death during one of the anti-terror raids -- was convicted and sent away for good.

A jury found the rest not guilty. It was a jury that did not believe any of the British government's arguments that the others in the dock with Bourgass had been connected to al Qaeda or that they had been part of any plot to poison London with ricin put into skin cream containers (whence, presumably it could be smeared on door handles.)

Part of the ricin plot was said to also include nicotine poisoning, and to this end, a Porton Down scientist recovered one Nivea pot contaminated with what appeared to Dick Destiny blog to be the fluid from tobacco chaw. Icky, perhaps, but only dangerous if you consider what's in a high school baseball player's cup in the dugout to be a WMD.

But the US newsmedia covered almost none of it. If you wanted to read what went down on an American site serving the media, the only place you could find it was here.

Of course, the trial was covered in the British media. But the coverage split into two camps. One that followed the government line, ignoring the jury verdicts, and repeating the allegations presented before the Iraq war. And one camp which presented the results of the trial, but which was presumed to be leftist or on the side of terrorists.

Since then the British government has tried various practical means to nullify the result of the verdicts.

One of these has been called a "control order" which when levied upon the former defendants exonerated made them prisoners in their own homes, awaiting deportation to their home country, which in the case of the "ricin ring" defendants, was Algeria. In other cases, since the London bombings of last year, it has been more convenient for the British government to arrest them in preparation for deportation, as threats to national security, with evidence of such nature -- it is claimed -- that it cannot be publicized in a trial. In this, it is functionally similar to arguments made concerning the detainees at Guantanamo.

During the original trial of the alleged London "ricin ring," claims and testimony -- material that made it into newsmedia reports prior to the trial -- against the defendants had been the product of a government informant, Mohamed Meguerba.

But Meguerba had provided the information in a confession he later recanted from an Algerian jail. And British prosecutors could not bring evidence from a country that was known to squeeze its prisoners. Subsequently, Meguerba was assumed to have been tortured into a confession. This point was later raised in the British media post-trial by defense lawyers. The British government had little, if any, response to it.

A recent article in the New Statesman addresses the plight of the exonerated in the London terror trial, through the experience of one of the innocent:

I'm sitting in a café in a grimy part of north London, whose exact location I can't tell you, drinking coffee with a man whose name I can't reveal. This man - I'll call him Ahmed - is apparently so dangerous that our government is not only eager to deport him to Algeria, but is keeping him under a kind of house arrest in the interim.

Ahmed's movements have been confined, for almost six months, to a small area around his flat, which takes him just 20 minutes to walk through. He is not allowed to use the internet or a mobile telephone, between 4pm and 10am he must stay in his flat and, while there, he isn't allowed to receive visitors unless they've been vetted by the Home Office. "I am a dog on a lead," he says. "I am not really a human being."

. . . He was acquitted, and says of the jury: "My gratitude and thanks went to the British people." He got a job in an internet shop and started to build his life up again.

Then, in September 2005, the door of his flat was smashed down by police and he was arrested again, not on a criminal charge but because the government wanted to deport him for being a threat to national security. For five months, he was detained, but now, while his case is being considered by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, he is living under these strict bail conditions.

Ahmed is not allowed to work and has no social life. "People now are so scared of me," he says. "I am just watching television, reading the papers, sleeping, going mad bit by bit . . ."

. . . The government says Ahmed must be deported because there is evidence against him that could not be brought out in open trial. Without being able to see the evidence, Ahmed can only counter it with denial . . .

He says he was not politically active after leaving Algeria and is not very religious, and he talks positively about living in an open society. Of course, this may be a front designed to disguise terrorist sympathies, but until the British government produces some evidence against him, it is very hard to judge.

Algeria's president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, met Tony Blair at No 10 on Tuesday to set his stamp on a deportation agreement between his country and the UK so that Ahmed and others in his position can be sent back. Yet this spring Amnesty International published a report showing that Bouteflika has failed to stamp out torture and secret detention by military police.

"The government here agrees that if I am sent back I will be arrested," says Ahmed. "And then I know I will be tortured, if not straight away, then after a while. They might let me go, but then take me back to prison, or kill me."
The entire piece by Natasha Walter can be read here.

Journalists and news organizations poorly served in the reporting on the trial of the alleged "London ricin ring." And they largely continue to ignore the tragic human consquences of it.

As a result, you can still read assertions with no relationship to the trial and no apparent basis in truth, in the American newsmedia. For example, this excerpt, from the Los Angeles Times on June 10th, filed after the killing of al Zarqawi, in which reporters repeat pre-Iraq war hearsay on the London defendants, connecting them to the notorious terrorist:

"Zarqawi's lieutenants allegedly trained and dispatched Algerians who were arrested in 2002 and 2003 on suspicion of plotting chemical and biological attacks in France and Britain, where one of the suspects stabbed a police detective to death."

A slightly fractious entry on the London ricin case can be found on Wikipedia here.

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