Terrorist case collapses after three years
Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian (UK),Tuesday March 21, 2000
An unprecedented three-year terrorist case dramatically collapsed yesterday when an MI5 informant refused to appear in court after evidence which senior ministers tried to suppress revealed that Algerian government forces were involved in atrocities against innocent civilians. In a case that has implications for the terrorism bill now going through parliament, Judge Henry Pownall ruled at the Old Bailey that evidence of MI5’s source was vital to the defence.
Without it, he said, there would be no admissible evidence to back up the defendants’ claims. The alleged terrorists, their lawyers argued, had sent material to Algeria in self-defence against Algerian government forces.
The prosecution – which earlier admitted that the security services had bugged a conversation between the three Algerian defendants and their lawyer at the Belmarsh top security prison in south-east London – offered no further evidence.
The judge formally entered a not guilty verdict against Sofiane Kebilene, 33, Farid Boukemiche, 29, and Sofiane Souidi, 33, accused of being supporters of the Armed Islamic Group.
They were arrested by the police in London in the summer of 1997 after a five-month surveillance operation by MI5. Ken McDonald QC, leading defence counsel, said they were arrested after contacts between Algerian interior ministry officials and officials at the British embassy in Algiers.
They were charged with possessing « chemical containers , radio equipment, manuals, documents, credit cards and sums of money, in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the articles were in their possession for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism ».
It was the first time charges have been laid under section 16a of the prevention of terrorism act described a year ago by Lord Bingham, the lord chief justice, as undermining « in a blatant and obvious way, the presumption of innocence ». Almost identical clauses appear in the new terrorism bill.
Lord Bingham said that by reversing the burden of proof the section almost certainly contravened the European convention on human rights. Despite his judgment, backing up an earlier ruling by Judge Pownall, the director of public prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, was determined to press ahead.
The prosecution pursued the case despite secret documents showing British intelligence believed the Algerian government was involved in atrocities, contradicting the view the government was claiming in public.
Three cabinet ministers – Jack Straw, Geoffrey Hoon and Robin Cook – signed public interest immunity certificates in an attempt to suppress the evidence.
When secret documents, mainly from the Foreign Office, were produced on the orders of the trial judge – 18 months after the defence asked for them – they were in marked contrast to the government’s publicly-stated view, expressed by the Foreign Office in 1998, that there was « no credible, substantive evidence to confirm » allegations implicating Algerian government forces in atrocities.
Nigel Sweeney, prosecution counsel, admitted yesterday that an MI5 source had secretly testified that he had « frequently seen people suspected of being members of the GIA (the armed Islamic group) and the FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front) beaten up, abducted and killed by the army. »
He said the Algerian army and police had « written authority to do whatever necessary against suspected members of the GIA and FIS ».
Documents the ministers wanted to suppress but read out earlier in open court revealed that Whitehall’s joint intelligence committee stated that « responsibility for violence cannot be conclusively laid in one place… There is no firm evidence to rule out gov ernment manipulation or involvement in terrorist violence ».
Sources had privately said some of the killings of civilians were the responsibility of the Algerian security services, one document said.
Another document, dated January 1997, reports a British source as saying « military security [in Algeria] would have… no scruples about killing innocent people… My instincts remain that parts of the Algerian government would stop at nothing ».
Other documents referred to the « manipulation » of the GIA being used as a cover to carry out their own operations. A US intelligence report – also read out in open court – said there was no evidence to link 1995 Paris bombings to Algerian militants, suggesting that one killing at the time could have been ordered by the Algerian government.
One Whitehall document says that its suspicions about the activities of Algerian government forces « if revealed could open us to detailed questioning by NGOs [non government organisations, such as human rights groups] and journalists ».
An estimated 100,000 people have been killed in Algeria since 1991.
Mr McDonald told the court last month that it would be an « affront to the public conscience to proceed ». The defence argued that it was impossible to get witnesses to give evidence about the security situation in Algeria – something Judge Pownall ruled was needed in the interests of justice. Determined to press ahead with the trial, the prosecution last month trawled through Home Office immigration files looking for an Algerian dissident who would give evidence on behalf of the defence.
After the MI5 source refused to be identified, the prosecution sought a deal whereby he would answer questions put to him by an independent solicitor. The source still refused insisting the risks to him and his family were too great.
During the course of pre-trial hearings – held in open court but which could not be disclosed until now – the security services admitted bugging a conversation between the defendants and their lawyer at Belmarsh.
The judge said the principle that such conversations were privileged was important but there was evidence it happened only in a « single incident » and may have been « wholly innocent ».
Gareth Peirce, lawyer for the defendants, said later that the law under which they were tried « should not exist ». The case had demonstrated the problems of trying people in Britain on charges relating to the nature of foreign regimes such as Algeria’s – a difficulty Mr Sweeney acknowledged, but he insisted there was strong prime facie evidence that the three men were guilty.
The men are applying for political asylum , though Kabilene and Boukemiche are awaiting sentencing on charges of deception, which they admitted.