The ricin trial disaster
Published in: Sunday Telegraph
After Kamel Bourgass was convicted last week of plotting to make poisons and sentenced to 17 years in prison, ministers sprang to the microphones to claim that the jury's verdict in the ricin trial proved that they had told the truth about the terrorist threat to Britain. But this was far wide of the mark. On the contrary, it was a disaster for those who believe that such a threat exists. The acquittal of eight of the nine defendants allowed the opponents of the Government's behaviour in Iraq to claim that Bourgass was merely a lone and ineffectual nutcase, that there was no al-Qa'eda conspiracy, and that the threat of a ricin plot was simply cooked up by Tony Blair to justify the Iraq war by mendaciously fuelling a climate of fear, as he had done over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
The prosecuting authorities effectively stand accused of suborning justice to shore up support for an unjustifiable war. Duncan Campbell, the maverick intelligence analyst, has pooh-poohed the claim that Bourgass's ricin recipe came from al-Qa'eda, and insisted instead that he downloaded it from American internet sites.
Some lawyers involved in the case suggested that the evidence by Bourgass's alleged co-conspirator was obtained under torture. And, in The Times, Sir Simon Jenkins wrote that there was no ricin, no al-Qa'eda plot and that anyone who was alarmed about such a thing was insane. Reality's boot, however, may be on the other foot. For it is surely the Government's opponents who filter everything through the distorting prism of their obsession that Britain was taken to war on a lie.
Evidence suggests that the trial itself was politicised, with the wholly unconnected war in Iraq being dragged in at every opportunity. The jury never actually heard some of the most crucial evidence. It all raises urgent questions about whether the adversarial knockabout and courtroom gamesmanship that characterise the criminal court system can cope with trials of this nature, where public safety is said to be so gravely at risk.
Government opponents claim that because no ricin was found there was no plot. But the charge was conspiracy, not production. Whether or not ricin was actually manufactured is irrelevant. What was found was the means to make a variety of poisons in a flat stacked with poison recipes, equipment and plans for making explosives - along with a pot of nicotine toxin. In what sense was this not a poisons factory? In what sense was Bourgass not involved in a terror plot?
Next, the anti-war camp claims that Bourgass was a loner. Evidence by Mohamed Meguerba, the Algerian informer, who claimed that both he and Bourgass had been in the ricin plot together, has been attacked on the grounds that he was forced to say this under torture. But the police found the poison factory in Wood Green, north London, only because of Meguerba's information. Indeed, virtually everything Meguerba told them checked out. So are we supposed to believe that this was merely an astonishing coincidence, or evidence perhaps of Meguerba's psychic powers to detect the 'loner' Bourgass?
What's more, although the jury acquitted Bourgass's four co-defendants in the dock, it nevertheless found him guilty of conspiracy with Meguerba, currently in an Algerian jail. And Bourgass himself said that he had copied out the poison recipes at Meguerba's request. So, by both his own account and that of the jury, he was not a loner at all.
Although some of Meguerba's evidence has been contradictory and inconsistent, security forces believe that he was part of an al-Qa'eda cell. He told the Algerian authorities that he was trained for terror activities in Europe, that he and Bourgass had received poisons training in Afghanistan's terrorist camps and that they had prepared two pots of ricin in the Wood Green flat. However, his evidence was never put to the jury because the defence successfully argued that, since he was not available for cross-examination, it was inadmissible.
Other crucial evidence was also not heard. The police found two recipes for ricin in Bourgass's handwriting. These are what Duncan Campbell says were identical to the recipes found on American internet sites.
This may be true - although in itself it proves nothing, since there is no reason why al-Qa'eda terrorists might not have got their poisons information from the internet. Indeed, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey, California, the ricin recipe in an al-Qa'eda military manual, Declaration of Jihad Against the Country's Tyrants, appears to have been translated nearly word for word from The Poisoner's Handbook, an underground pamphlet originally published in America.
In any event, the police case that there was a direct link between Bourgass's recipes and al-Qa'eda was never actually put to the jury. Their argument was that his recipes - which were not just for ricin but other poisons such as botulinum and nicotine - were identical to a large number of poisons recipes seized by the British and US military from the Afghan camps, and that, although there were subtle differences between them, their common origin was clear.
But the court never heard this evidence. Since the prosecution was unable to produce the soldiers who had found all this material in Afghanistan, it needed the defence to accept that it had indeed been found in the camps. But the defence made no such concession, and said it would challenge the prosecution's claim about its provenance.
The prospect thus loomed of a protracted battle between expert witnesses on either side. The prosecution concluded that this would leave the jury unable to decide which expert was right. The result was that the link with the Afghan documents could not be argued, and the full range of witnesses lined up from Porton Down to give their views on Bourgass's recipes was never called.
According to the prosecution, a wealth of fingerprints by several of the defendants was found on photocopied poison recipes and bottles of chemicals. But the defence insisted that the men had handled all this material in innocence, not realising what it was.
According to the police, the defence made significant use of another, far more explosive argument - that the whole police investigation was a political set-up to bolster the case for war in Iraq.
Defence counsel, say the police, repeatedly referred to the Iraq controversy. They claimed that the police investigation was going on while the Government was softening up the public for war; they made references to the 'dodgy dossier', and said that everyone now knew how unreliable intelligence was.
In fact, the police investigation that had started in the summer of 2002 was originally aimed at uncovering passport and credit-card scams. Only when the trail led to an address in Thetford, Norfolk, did detectives stumble across photocopies of handwritten Arabic recipes for poisons and explosives.
Of course, no one knows what influences a jury. But, given the widespread public anger about what is generally believed to have been the flawed intelligence and lies told about Iraq, it is more than likely that this drip-drip of insinuations about dodgy intelligence would have struck a powerful chord and undermined the prosecution case.
Moreover, the conduct of the trial hardly lent itself to a clear overview of the evidence. It kept stopping and starting - sometimes for what seemed to be bizarre reasons. For example, when the defence claimed that the Algerian authorities mistreated Algerian exiles, the trial was stopped for a month so that every government department could trawl for evidence of whether the Algerian government might do anything to harm their nationals abroad.
In the eight months of the trial, the jury heard only about four weeks of evidence. The rest was legal argument. Indeed, after the evidence was heard there followed many weeks of yet further legal argument, after which the jury retired to consider its verdict. How can jurors be expected to have the evidence in the forefront of their minds in such fractured circumstances?
The defence would doubtless present a robust challenge to this prosecution view of the trial. The problem is that, because of draconian reporting restrictions, none of the evidence was reported at the time. So it is hard now to form an authoritative view. And this information vacuum lends itself to political manipulation.
Meguerba's allegations of an al-Qa'eda connection were alleged to have been extracted under torture in Algeria. In fact, no one knows how he was treated by the Algerians after they arrested him on terrorism charges. But he was interrogated for three days by an Algerian judge in the presence of British antiterrorist officers, who say they saw no evidence of his having been ill-treated and that he was 'remarkably sprightly' and 'particularly cocksure'.
And it was in these interviews that the police say Meguerba said that Bourgass had been trained in the Afghan camps in the making and use of poisons, that he and Bourgass had made ricin in the Wood Green flat, and that there were two pots of the stuff hidden in a cupboard. So this evidence was not extracted under torture.
Defence lawyers spoke dismissively of a 'massive conspiracy tapestry woven by the prosecution'. But, to the anti-war camp, any actual terrorist conspiracy has to be denied because the only possible conspiracy is one that is perpetrated by the state.
The political climate is one of fevered irrationality in which, because Messrs Blair and Bush stand accused of having exaggerated the terrorist threat, it is believed that anything they have ever claimed demonstrates such a threat must by definition be untrue - regardless of the evidence. The outcome is that a police investigation that destroyed the nucleus of a terrorist cell is misrepresented as a politicised operation.
This trial has been seized upon by both Labour and Tory politicians to make political points. But the real politicisation has taken place in the courtroom, where the law has shown itself to be not only inadequate to deal with the threat of terror but also unable to escape the long and baleful shadow of the Iraq war.