Monday, 17 November 2014

The U.K’s ill-fated secret terror trial

The Daily Star,
Monday, November 17 2014
By Michael Glackin

You really couldn’t make it up. Britain’s first ever secret terror trial, the one the government spent large amounts of tax payers money trying to keep under wraps, has collapsed after the jury failed to reach a verdict.

Last week, the judge was forced to discharge the Old Bailey jury of seven women and five men and call a halt to the trial, which lasted a month and was mostly heard in camera, behind closed doors.

So, British law student Erol Incedal, who is accused of either targeting former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, or preparing to carry out a “Mumbai-style” gun attack on the streets of London, now faces a retrial next year.

Incedal, who was born in Turkey and is from a Turkish-Kurdish family, is charged with preparing acts of terrorism and possessing bomb-making instructions. He denies the offenses.

This much we know. However, because of the secrecy surrounding the trial we still have no idea of the entirety of evidence the jury was considering, nor why it was unable to reach a verdict.

A small number of accredited journalists were allowed to attend parts of the trial, but they were unable to report on proceedings. In all, 40 hours of evidence was heard behind closed doors, which included virtually all of Incedal’s defense. Eight hours was heard with the 10 accredited reporters present, and 12 hours in open court. The defendant was present throughout.

Throughout each of the secret evidence sessions the journalists had to surrender their mobile phones, which were then locked away in soundproof boxes. At the end of each session, the journalists had to hand their notebooks to a police officer to be locked in a safe at court.

Although all that sounds like something from Stalin’s Soviet Union, it bizarrely represents a very limited concession to open justice forced on judiciary after several newspapers took the government to court. Originally the Crown Prosecution Service, supported by the government, demanded all details of the case remain private on grounds of “national security.”

Considering the jury appears to have been unconvinced by the evidence presented during the case, the government should now thank those newspapers for their determination in winning these meager concessions. At least the public’s awareness of the jury’s inability to reach a decision offers some hope that the trial is less of a stitch-up than all the secrecy surrounding it infers.

What we were able to learn during the trial is that Incedal was stopped and arrested by police in September last year while speeding in a black Mercedes E class saloon through the streets of London. A slip of paper with the address of one of the Blair’s homes was discovered in the car by police officers, who then planted a bug in the vehicle which picked Incedal’s conversations over the following days.

After listening in for a few weeks, during which Incedal was heard on tape to complain about “pigs” – slang for police, and talk about a “Plan B,” because he feared the authorities were on to him, armed police stopped Incedal’s car again, this time shooting the tires out from under it. They then arrested him, along with a man who was driving the car, Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadja, on suspicion of being terrorists.

Incedal was found with bomb-making plans, labelled “Good Stuff,” on an SD memory card hidden in the cover of his mobile phone. Following a search of his home address in south London police discovered notes for a “Plan A,” which appeared to concern a checklist for a potential operation that involved “one-month surveillance,” renting an apartment, and uniforms.

At a second address in west London, which Incedal shared, officers found a laptop computer containing what the prosecution claimed were coded messages about a “Mumbai-style” massacre – when armed terrorists from Pakistan killed 164 people in India’s most populous city in a series of coordinated attacks which included one on a Jewish center in 2008.

The prosecution also claimed Incedal had been researching ISIS online and had communicated with someone abroad via Skype to purchase a Kalashnikov rifle. A photograph of an East London synagogue was also discovered on Incedal’s iPhone.

Summing up the case for the jury before their ill-starred deliberations, the judge, Justice Andrew Nicol, said the prosecution had to prove that Incedal intended to commit an act of terrorism or had persuaded others to do so.

Incedal, who took the stand in his own defense, denied he intended to commit an act of terrorism. He accepted that he possessed the memory card but said he had a “good excuse” for doing so.

Justice Nicol said Incedal’s defense included a claim that he was interested in armed robbery rather than terrorism. The notes that the prosecution said were for a terror plot were part of a plan to rob a jewelers. The judge added that Incedal planned to carry out the robbery with three sons of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the extremist cleric, although he had not mentioned the plan to Abu Hamza’s sons.

The judge also told the jury that Incedal believed resistance to foreign intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan was “justified” and that he supported rebels opposing the Assad regime in Syria. However, the court was also told that Incedal believed terrorism in Britain was “immoral and contrary to Islam.”

The court was also told about Incedal’s troubled childhood. His father had been a member of the Turkish communist party and died when he was very young. His sister was a member of the PKK and was killed in fighting. His mother, who was from the Kurdish Syrian-Iraq region, brought Incedal and his siblings to Britain when he was 1 year old.

And that is pretty much all we know.

Incidentally, Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who was driving the car the night its tires were blown out by police, pleaded guilty last month to possessing “bomb making” documents that were also found on a memory card hidden in his mobile phone. He will be sentenced at the end of next year’s retrial.

One hopes all, or at least more, of the retrial will be heard in open court. Following the collapse of the trial, Britain’s most senior judge warned that the secrecy surrounding this controversial case must “never, ever” happen again.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, said that “a lot of this stuff” could be heard in open court and that in the limited cases where evidence needed to remain secret the reasons should be clearly explained.

This ill-fated exercise in secrecy should be the first and last time a government, or “national security,” is ever allowed to gnaw at the rule of law and erode the principle of open justice. The retrial provides an opportunity for the government to hit the reset button. Let us hope it does the right thing. Justice demands it.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 17, 2014, on page 7.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Burying the truth about Britain’s Iraq war

The Daily Star
Friday, November 7 2014
By Michael Glackin

When something goes badly awry in British public life, particularly when a government is caught up in a mess of its own making, the default response of politicians is to set up a public inquiry.

Public inquiries can occasionally expose the truth after a scandal or major controversy. Sometimes they even decide who is culpable. But in Britain, public inquiries are less about digging up the truth, and more about burying it.

So no sooner had the British Army solemnly lowered the Union Flag at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, with a ceremonial efficiency that their military operations in Afghanistan too often lacked, than the cry went up in parliament for a public inquiry into the nation’s involvement in the 13-year war.

In many respects a public inquiry into this long and bloody conflict is desperately needed. It has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Afghans and 453 British military personnel, and cost British taxpayers around $60 billion.

Despite this, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon admitted there was “no guarantee”Afghanistan would be “stable” or “safe” after Britain’s departure.

“The Taliban are still there, there is still insurgency,” he said.

An inquiry could shed some light on why the purpose of Britain’s operations in Afghanistan changed so often during the conflict. It might explain whether Britain’s troops were there too long, or whether they should have been there at all.

However, the smart money says a public inquiry will be about as enlightening as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Witness the soap opera that is the long-awaited report of the official inquiry into the Iraq war.

The inquiry, which began taking evidence in 2009, is chaired by a top judge, Sir John Chilcot. In essence Chilcot was charged with establishing precisely why then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who testified to the inquiry in 2011, committed British forces to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – in the face of huge public opposition – and what lessons could be learned from mistakes leading up to the war and its aftermath.

The last witnesses to the inquiry gave their evidence more than three years ago. But astonishingly the inquiry’s findings remain unpublished.

The delay is largely because of a row over what is bizarrely described as “private correspondence” between Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush in the months before the invasion. This consists of 25 letters Blair sent to Bush, along with the transcripts of 130 telephone calls between the two men.

Chilcot wanted to publish the correspondence. But British Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who oddly enough was Blair’s principal private secretary in the run-up to the invasion, refused, insisting it would jeopardize relations with Washington.

Instead a deal was struck between Heywood and Chilcot to release “selected extracts.” The deal also means no detail of Bush’s comments or views made during the exchanges will be made public.

In Heywood’s words, the “gist” of the crucial conversations between the two men will be published, but the reality is that the full details of these important public documents will remain secret.

We all know the “gist,” it’s the detail we all want to hear. We want to know whether Blair really did write to Bush in July 2002 and say: “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.”

The letter, which was quoted in journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party and was based on his interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., was written almost a year before the British parliamentary vote on whether Britain would join the invasion.

Why a civil servant like Heywood, who had a close working relationship with Blair, should be in a position to censor what can be published by the inquiry beggars belief.

The only silver lining in the deal brokered by Heywood was that it was seen as a breakthrough that might finally allow the inquiry’s report to see the light of day.

But it wasn’t to be. Because it then emerged that before anything can be published, letters must also be sent to any individuals facing criticism in the final report to allow them an opportunity to respond, and presumably, dilute the criticism.

A spokesman for the inquiry has confirmed that the legal process in which figures like Blair will be given the chance to respond to the report has not even started and is likely to take at least two to three months to complete whenever it does begin.

In reality, with a general election due to be held in May, the inquiry’s report is unlikely to be made public until the middle of next year at the very earliest, six years after it started taking evidence.

Small wonder the whole sorry mess has been branded a “whitewash” and an “establishment stitch-up” by the relatives of servicemen who were killed during the conflict.

Accusations of a cover-up are not helped by the revelation that Chilcot asked the government to declassify 7,000 documents for publication but has so far only been given permission to publish 1,400 of them.

Contrast that with the government’s public inquiry into the hacking of telephone voicemails by a handful of journalists which published every scrap of relevant private correspondence and electronic communication.

It also led to a police investigation which has resulted in criminal prosecutions of journalists, several of whom were imprisoned.

The government is embroiled in similar accusations of a cover-up in its handling of a public inquiry into historic child abuse claims in which a number of senior politicians from the 1980s are suspected of being implicated.

So while there is real need for an inquiry into Britain’s part in the war in Afghanistan, one would have to say that based on the Iraq inquiry it would be a waste of time and money.

The long wait for the Iraq inquiry report shows that public inquiries need to be transparent and must be entirely free of government influence.

Experience shows that doesn’t happen when the establishment investigates itself.

As a wise observer of the British political scene once said: “It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them.”

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR, for which this commentary was written. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 07, 2014, on page 7