Interview with Jurors from the ‘Ricin’ Trial
The re-arrests of the men acquitted from the Ricin trials last week have invoked public rage and outcry over the treatment of these exonerated men. In particular, a number of the jurors from the original trial contacted Cageprisoners to voice their concerns over what they see to be a clear violation of the rule of law and fundamental principles of justice that the UK has always been so strong in protecting. What is becoming clear to them, is that the government is slowly turning the UK from being a liberal democracy, into becoming a hegemonic oligarchy.
CAGEPRISONERS: Could you please first explain to our readers who you are and why you have contacted Cageprisoners?
JA: We are three jurors from the Ricin trial. We contacted Cageprisoners because we are concerned about the aftermath of the trial and the rearrests of the suspects.
JB: We realised that there were a few online communities that were interested in these issues apart from Cageprisoners who particularly stood out.
JC: To raise the profile of those men acquitted as they face deportation if their asylum application is denied.
CP: Before you were asked to act as jurors to the case, to what extent did you know of the issues relating to the anti-terrorist arrests and the general ‘war on terror’?
JA: Personally, I knew very little, only what the media covered. I assumed that the police and intelligence work hand in hand to deal with these issues and I trusted them.
JB: Very similar to that, I thought that the anti-terror laws we had were good, tried and tested, and the general ‘War on Terror’, things I read in the media everyday, but with a scepticism. For example, I didn’t always believe what I read about the ‘War on Terror’, as I am interested in causes as well as symptoms and problems.
JC: For me, I didn’t know anything of the arrests; when they happened I was living abroad. The first that I knew of this is when I got called for jury service at the Old Bailey. As for the ‘War on Terror’, my knowledge only came from the television and newspapers.
CP: Did media demonisation of the Muslim community have any affect on your opinions of Muslims before the case came about?
JA: Personally no. I was very aware of the media coverage of Muslim clerics such as Abu Hamza and Qatada, but it didn’t have any effect on my opinions.
JB: In my case, because I studied Islamic History at university, I was taken aback by what I thought was quite an insidious agenda to demonise British Muslims, but I just thought that was part of the need for certain Western governments to find a new bug-bear. More than that I didn’t think about the issue.
JC: For me, no. It didn’t affect my opinion, I think small minded people believe small minded media stories. I am not influenced by that kind of reporting. I know what is right and what is wrong. In addition, before selection of the jury, we were given a list of questions, the last question was, (if we answered yes, we would have to raise it with the judge at the time), “This case concerns an allegation of involvement with terrorism, and these defendants are Muslims, do you or does any close family member or friend have either personal or religious or political beliefs that are critical of or hostile to Muslims or Islam, so that you may find it difficult to try a case involving Muslim defendants fairly and according to the evidence.” The defence were quite astute of media portrayal of Muslims.
CP: What were the main charges and what did you think of those charges that had been brought against the Ricin defendants at the start of the case?
JA: There were two charges against the five defendants, conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause public nuisance by use of poisons and or explosives to cause disruption fear or injury. There were also five counts of possessing false instruments (false passports) against Sihali. They sounded very dramatic, I was very curious to see what it was all about, I hadn’t seen press coverage over this at all. The passport charges seemed a curious addition.
JB: They seemed to be very serious charges, and I fully expected the prosecution to present cast iron evidence in support of these very serious charges.
JC: They sounded like very serious charges, although the second charge, the conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, didn’t seem so serious until you realise it was by using poison and or explosives.
CP: What was your opinion of the way in which the government conducted its case against the men?
JA: I’m sure it’s the nature of trials. It did seem to me that ‘let’s throw as much mud as we can and hope that it sticks’. It seemed very light on evidence, there were lots of inferences made without substantiation.
JB: I was constantly puzzled throughout the many months of the case. I kept on thinking, where is the evidence? Can this really be it? Smears, innuendos, suggestions. I thought surely, eventually, we must get to the meat of the matter. When we never did, I had a sense of outrage on behalf of some of the men that had been accused. It struck me as very firmly, that the government had been desperate to convict these men, no matter what. As a result, I was very suspicious of their motives in bringing this particular case against them.
JC: The CPS I found were extremely formal and proper in their manner in which the case was presented. However, the content was dubious. I felt that they were trying to use certain parts of the defendants’ lives to support the charges of terrorism, I think, probably in the hope that we would be affected by the media coverage, playing to our prejudices. They used the fact that they were Muslim against them, the fact that they attended the Finsbury Park Mosque, but at the same time suggested that many law abiding citizens went to that mosque. They played upon the fact that they were asylum seekers, and failed asylum seekers, that they’d entered the country illegally, some had been involved with benefit fraud. They had multiple identities and some participated in ID and passport fraud. There was also a great deal of character assassination.
JA: The CPS placed the defendants in a catch 22 situation, whereby if they were good Muslims, they were guilty of being extremists, and if they were bad Muslims, e.g. womanisers and alcohol drinkers, they were seen seedy, disreputable and untrustworthy.
CP: In particular, could you please tell us your reaction at the knowledge that some of the evidence that had been obtained, was likely to have been done so under torture and duress?
JA: We did not know about this until after the case. Very little of the Meguerba evidence was admissible in court due to legal wrangling between prosecution and defence. Once I realised that this evidence had been obtained under torture, I was appalled.
JB: When I realised that the lion’s share of evidence leading to the flat and alleging the existence of this terrorist cell was obtained through probable torture of Meguerba in Algeria, I was horrified and disgusted. I could not believe the media reaction post case which failed to differentiate between what was put before us and what journalists could hear in court in our absence. I believe it was proper that we did not hear the Meguerba evidence, because if our government is even contemplating allowing such evidence to be in future put in a British court of law then something very precious about our way of life would be destroyed forever.
JC: It makes my blood run cold to think that this has happened, in addition this is what the British authorities base their charges upon. It is well documented that information gained by torture is notoriously unreliable, and I understand that even the CPS thought that Meguerba evidence to be so, however they relied heavily on this information to bring this case to court. I suspect that they are using this information for the re-arrest.
JA: Whilst I have little sympathy with Meguerba, to read of the condition he is in now, is truly shocking.
CP: What is the exact source of your outrage with regard to the conduct of the trial against the men and the way in which they have been treated after the conclusion of the case?
JB: I was really surprised to hear that the men we found not guilty of the charges were going to be deported, or the government had begun proceedings to deport them after the end of the case. It seemed very much against the spirit of our verdict, it seemed a legalistic get-out because of course they were going to be deported under immigration laws. I thought it was unfair that the government, having so laboriously, over many months, gathered and presented evidence before a jury, was now ignoring the result of that process and worse threatening to send these people back to a country where they knew that those men had, at best, poor futures. This is the thing that has outraged me the most, because it is not what I thought our British way of justice was about.
JC: I couldn’t understand why two of them were charged in the first place. Of course, the police are right to investigate claims, but the decision for the CPS to prosecute is quite astounding.
CP: What is your opinion on media coverage of the acquittals that took place?
JA: I was really shocked and disappointed by the coverage. I have never been one to totally believe newspapers, but I have never seen so much distortion of the facts. Certain TV programmes overdramatised the case and stated things as facts that were merely opinions.
JB: I was quite upset to see the media having a field day with the result of our case. I felt that some of the media were pandering to some of the worst prejudices and anti-Muslim feeling in our community. The coverage was sensationalist, lurid, inaccurate and I simply couldn’t recognise what was in some newspapers.
JC: I was shocked by the media coverage, they chose to print information gained by torture and made no reference to the fact that it was not presented in court. In some cases, they said that the jury had heard this evidence. What was shocking as well, is that they totally missed the point, that four men were acquitted, and very little evidence had been given against them. The fact that they were found not guilty was ignored and in fact, they portrayed the acquitted men as having gotten away with it. My link to knowing what happens in the world around us is via the newspapers and television, and they got it so wrong in this case, what else are they getting wrong?
CP: Last Thursday (15/09/2005) the men from the Ricin trials were rearrested, judging from what you know of these men in the previous case, would you consider them to be a threat to national security?
JA: From the evidence that was offered to us in the trial I would consider it difficult to believe that they are a threat to national security. If there is such damning evidence against them, why was this never presented to a jury in the first place, and why have they been arrested under immigration law, rather than the Terrorism Act.
JB: Personally, I am absolutely convinced that one of the men who had been recently picked up again, is totally innocent. I have nothing but admiration for the way he defended himself in the dock against a top QC who was determined to paint the most sinister picture of him as possible. Besides the evidence against him was a catalogue of sly digs, sarcastic inferences and making a mountain out of a molehill of highly circumstantial evidence.
JC: I didn’t hear any evidence in court to suggest they were a threat. It is disgusting to think the government is trying to get round a legal loophole to put them back in prison. I think that perhaps the authorities feel cheated of what they thought were sure convictions.
CP: The new measures that have been mooted by the Labour government include three month detention without charge and also deportation to States on diplomatic assurances that the deportees will not be subjected to torture. In your opinion, do you think that such measures by the government are bona fide?
JA: I think these Memorandum of Understanding are not worth the paper they are written on. The fact that they have taken so long to draw up makes me very dubious of them. There is little suggestion that there will be any monitoring of the deportees and obviously I fear for their futures. With regard to the three month detention period, I think this is totally unreasonable, and we are in grave danger of becoming an almost military state.
JB: I think the MOUs are breathtakingly cynical. I do not believe for a moment that certain countries can, let alone are willing to truly give assurances about not torturing citizens that are returned to them. I think it is not credible for politicians like Charles Clarke to say that we must respect these agreements between nations. The UK government either has or has not evidence enough to put people in a court of law and try them fairly. It should not be trying to get ‘problem individuals’ out of the country through the back door like this. This was once a country that was a genuine haven for people fleeing poverty and oppression. I am seriously concerned that we are undermining a great tradition of being a country of refuge and compassion.
JC: Three months detention without charge, is equivalent of six-month sentence for a crime that wasn’t committed, only a crime that was perhaps suspected. As I understand, the police already have powers to detain people for longer than 14 days by charging a suspect for a lower offence and once the information is gained, they are able to charge them for the higher offence. To hold people with no evidence for such a long period of time strikes me as something a police State would encourage, and a democracy should resist. As for deportation to countries like Algeria I cannot trust a government that tortures its citizens if it believes they are connected in any way to terrorism. Despite the acquitted men being found not guilty or never tried, they are inextricably linked with terrorism charges which could be held against them in their home country.
CP: Considering the very real threat of torture in Algeria, do you feel these men deserve the right to claim asylum in the UK?
JA: Absolutely! Directly after the case, my understanding was that the defendants would be able to negotiate an asylum claim in the UK with no problems. It was a complete shock to hear that they were even considering deporting people back to a country with a notorious reputation. Being associated with a terrorist trial has undoubtedly blackened their reputations and the threat of torture must be very real.
JB: I think that each and every one of them must be given asylum now. These men have had their day in court. The CPS have spent millions putting them to trial, and as a jury we considered the evidence fully for many months. Our verdict should stand. As a society, we took away the liberty of these men for a couple of years, I think it is the least that any decent society can do, after putting them through such experiences, to simply let them get on with their lives in peace.
JC: Yes, they deserve asylum. They would surely be persecuted if they returned to their home country and that is what the British asylum system is there to prevent. The situation for those who have been rearrested has been compounded by the government stating that they are a threat to national security and are insisting on deporting them back to a country that allegedly tortured Meguerba for the forced confession that led to their arrests.
CP: In light of the decision that you, as the jury made, what do you believe to be the implications of the government’s rejection of your verdict? Further than that, what are your opinions regarding the end of trial by jury and the proposed secret trials?
JA: I think the government’s rejection sets a worrying precedent. This is potentially the thin end of the wedge. It undermines the whole foundation of the British justice system. With regard to secret trials, this is also very worrying; what provision has been made to monitor these trials, what is going to be in the public domain, and who is going to control this.
JB: I believe that the rejection of our verdict is an example of the government cutting off its nose to spite its face. It maybe expedient now to clamp down on these perceived threats, but I am very worried about what this means long term for ancient liberties that have been gained with much trouble by previous generations. The question of the end of trial by jury and the proposed secret trials is more complex. On the face of it, the idea that an intelligence cleared judge could sift certain evidence before it goes before a jury seems attractive; however, I believe very strongly that a jury of defendants’ peers, hearing evidence in open trial is by far the best way to conduct these serious trials. Any other way, and we are on a slippery slope, the outcome of which maybe a society where we cannot be sure what is really going on behind closed doors.
Also, I think, it is instructive that it is the police, with the intelligence services in the background, who are asking for these new laws. Nothing can disguise the monumental failures of the intelligence services to combat this threat. Better policing, community relations and more joined up smarter approach is needed, not these harsh and excessive, knee-jerk reactions and laws.
JC: End of trial by jury can be summed up by Lord Devlin, “The first object of any tyrant in Whitehall would be to make Parliament utterly subservient to his will, and the next to overthrow or diminish trial by jury, for no tyrant could afford to leave a subject’s freedom in the hands of twelve of his countrymen. So that trial by jury is more than an instrument of justice and more than one wheel of the constitution, it is the lamp that shows that freedom lives.” Secret trials make me extremely fearful. Government appointed defence lawyers, secret evidence, nothing open to the public – it reminds me of the days of the Cold War, with the witch hunts, or some science fiction future, where you could be convicted of a thought-crime as was shown in the film Minority Report.
CP: Do you think that the age old entrenched principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has now become a dead letter?
JA: I would hope not. I think that in this particular case the assumption was there, and for whatever reason, the government were desperate to prove a conspiracy with little regard for what was under their noses. I still have faith in the British justice system and hope that justice will be done in this case. I sincerely hope that appeals presented by the defendants will be successful, and any judge worth his salt would never considered deporting the defendants.
JB: I also believe that innocent until proven guilty is not a dead letter. We were a cross-section of our community and I am convinced that we came back with the right result which was achieved even with the very high burden of proof needed. I am confident that other juries in the future will continue with these high standards, I think the fact that the government is trying to open up other quicker avenues to justice shows how effective our jury system is. There is no room for complacency because under sustained pressure and in the face of a media putting across just one point of view mostly, the jury system as we know it may be undermined. That is why we have come forward to speak out.
JC: I think the general public disregard the principle innocent until proven guilty with regards to terrorism. People assume that because you are a suspect, you must be guilty. The horrifying example of this was the shooting of an innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezes, and the first reaction by the media and the general public assumed he was guilty. We cannot trust the State to get it right every time, which is one of the reasons why we do not permit capital punishment and it is also why it is essential to have trial by jury in an open court. Generally, the public are very trusting of the police and of the authorities and assume that they get it right, they think that there is no smoke without fire, and therefore assume that they are guilty. I think that it’s a shocking statistic to hear that 75% of people polled were prepared to give up civil liberties in order to combat terrorism.
CP: Thank you for having the courage to speak against what you see as a clear injustice. What would you advise those members of the public who will read this and feel that they should do something to help?
JA: As a first move, contact your MP, the Home Office and sign the Cageprisoners petition. Also read as much background material as possible and also don’t always believe what you read in the media.
JB: Members of the public should know, that often, doing the right thing is a lonely, hard slog. You may lose friends, receive criticism from family, and others who are close who will not understand, who will have no time for puzzling out the details, the ins and outs of this vast issue of how we gain justice in the linked world of terrorism, asylum seekers, the expression of radical beliefs and in defence of our own norms and values. Please have the courage because the health of future civil society and our democracy is totally reliant on people doing the difficult and unpopular but brave and necessary thing.
JC: If people want to help, they should definitely speak up as there is a real unbalance in the media and in society that needs to be corrected to give a fuller picture of what is going on. Please don’t take it lightly, of the government’s proposals on what this will mean for our civil liberties. It is essential to defend what this country has become renowned for.
CP: Is there anything that you would like to add from yourselves?
JA: I would just like to say about the new raft of anti-terrorism laws that have been proposed. I think that they are draconian, ill conceived, hastily put together and completely over the top for what is required. Our current legislation is more than enough to deal with any terrorist threat.
JC: I’d like to know any opinions the readers have on this interview and also if they have any questions, we’d be happy to answer them. Please email Cageprisoners ([email protected]) and they will forward to us any queries you may have. Unfortunately, there are certain restrictions upon the information we are able to impart, however we will endeavour to answer you as best we can.
CP: What do you think of the Cageprisoners website?
JA: I am amazed by the professionalism of the site, the amount of information that you gather so quickly, and the very impartial views that you put across.
JB: I am very glad to have this opportunity to put across our story. I hope that it provides some thought provoking, and ultimately encouraging material to all your readers out there. Together we can raise the profile of some of these issues that simply don’t get a fair airing in the rest of the media.
JC: I am pleased to know that we are able to gain information that would not normally be available from other media. It is a great source for unbiased information and we are lucky to still have the right to freedom of speech.
Thank you very much all of you for having the courage to come forward and to air your concerns.