Home Office says sorry to suspects for ricin blunder
Audrey Gillan, The Guardian, April 16, 2005
The Home Office has been forced to apologise to 10 men placed under controversial anti-terrorist control orders after it linked them to the ricin plot in London, the Guardian has discovered.
In an embarrassing letter to the men, the government claims that it made a « clerical error » when it said the grounds for emergency restriction imposed on each of the alleged international terrorists was that they « belonged to and have provided support for a network of north African extremists directly involved in terrorist planning in the UK, including the use of toxic chemicals ».
Last Wednesday, Kamel Bourgass, an Algerian who stabbed a policeman to death and planned poison attacks across Britain, was jailed for 17 years. But in a blow to the police and security services, four co-defendants were acquitted and a second trial was abandoned. Defence lawyers said the case was a massive conspiracy tapestry woven by the prosecution and that it had been used by the government to justify the war in Iraq and detention without trial in the UK.
The fact that the control orders attempted to connect the 10 men – who were detained without charge and trial for more than two years before being released under stringent conditions – to the ricin plot, will cast further doubt on the validity of the secret evidence the government claims it has on them.
Last night a Home Office spokesman said: « Basically there was a clerical error in the initial order in that the same basis for issue was given in all of the orders. This was noticed shortly afterwards and acted on immediately. It did not affect the validity of the order.
« The home secretary made the decision to issue the control orders on the basis of information given to him by the security services. The clerical error did not change the validity of the order in any way. »
Control orders were rushed through parliament last month amid stormy debates during which the home secretary, Charles Clarke, promised that they would be scrutinised by a judge before they were issued. But the existing 10 orders against the former Belmarsh detainees were issued under an emergency clause which allowed him to impose them before detention without trial powers expired.
Last night the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten, said: « If ever there was a case for making sure defendants can hear the allegations against them then this must be it. While this may have been a clerical error, it raises the appalling possibility that ministers are wielding these powers without paying full attention to the detail. »
Mark Neale, the director general of the Home Office’s security, international and organised crime unit, wrote to each of the men to change the terms of the control order through which they are held under partial house arrest.
The Guardian has seen the letter sent to Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian refugee who was released last month from Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital and is subject to a control order. The other detainees include the Islamist preacher Abu Qatada and eight who can not be named.
The letter to Mr Abu Rideh tells him that « the basis for the decision to make the control order » is that he is an active supporter of international terrorist groups with links to Osama bin Laden, including two Algerian groups, the Armed Islamic Group and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, as well as Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Mr Abu Rideh is a stateless Palestinian who, his lawyer says, has never been to Algeria.
The letter continues: « Your activities on their behalf include the raising and distribution of funds, the procurement of false documents and helping to facilitate the movement of jihad volunteers to training camps in Afghanistan. You are closely involved with senior extremists and associates of Bin Laden both in the UK and overseas. »
In the original control order, he was accused of being involved in the ricin plot as well as being « a key UK-based contact and provider of financial and logistical support to extreme Islamists in the UK and overseas, belonging to networks linked to al-Qaida. Your contacts are senior figures and cross a range in international terrorist networks. The type of support which you offered significantly increases the capabilities of these networks, without which they would be unable to function as effectively. These networks pose a direct threat to the UK. » This has also been removed from his order.
Mr Abu Rideh’s solicitor, Nicky Shiner, said: « I couldn’t believe an organisation such as the Home Office could make that mistake. It’s obviously someone sitting there doing a cut and paste job. »
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, which campaigns against the orders, said: « Clerical error or false accusation – how are we ever to know in this world where fair trials are now replaced with secret intelligence and endless suspicion? »
The credibility of the Algerian supergrass at the centre of claims that al-Qaida was linked to the plot to attack Britain with ricin was last night undermined.
Details of the testimony given by Mohammed Meguerba first to Algerian, then British police and intelligence, have been learned by the Guardian. They show him lying to British police about his involvement in the plot, and other inconsistencies in his account.
He claimed that he and Bourgass had learned to make poisons in an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan in 2002, after the US had invaded and similar camps had been bombed.
Meguerba is the only source for the continuing police belief that the London-based terror gang produced ricin, despite scientific tests showing it did not.