In January 2003, news broke in the British media that anti-terror police had raided a ‘ricin factory’ in north London.
The headlines could not have been more alarming.
The Sun: ‘Ricin near Bin pal’s home’ (‘The poison factory used to make deadly ricin is just 200 yards from the lair of one of Osama bin Laden’s henchmen…’).
The Daily Mail: ‘Ricin assassin on the run.’
The entire Daily Mirror front page was taken up with a skull and crossbones superimposed on a map of the UK, with the headline: ‘IT’S HERE’ (‘Deadly terror poison found in Britain’; ‘Where is it? How much is there? Who has it? And can we cope?’ ‘Full shocking story, pages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7.’)
Elsewhere in the media, it was reported that gas mask sales had ‘soared’. The manager of an army surplus shop was quoted as saying: ‘My niece lives in London and she and her husband took gas masks down there. People are worried about the tube.’
A few days later, the Independent claimed the finds in north London were being linked to a Europe-wide ‘network of terrorist assassination squads’, intent on carrying out ‘random killings using exotic poison…designed to maximise panic and fear.’
When five of the men arrested as a result of the raids appeared at the Old Bailey in September 2004, expectations were running high. The so-called ‘ricin plot trial’ was the first major UK terror case since the 9/11 attacks on America. Lawyers predicted that the defendants could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted. There seemed little doubt that the police had broken up a major terrorist network and the revelations in court were likely to be as shocking as they were terrifying.
When the case actually began, however, it was an anticlimax. The accusations against Mouloud Sihali, David Khalef, Sidali Feddag, Mustapha Taleb and Kamel Bourgass, although undoubtedly serious, bore little relation to the more alarmist headlines at the time of their arrests.
Earlier charges of manufacturing a chemical weapon had been dropped; there was to be no mention in court of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden; no suggestion of a big international conspiracy. Crucially, despite the Daily Mirror’s striking front page, ‘It’ (ricin), wasn’t ‘here’ (in the UK) at all: despite a barrage of scientific tests, no trace of poison had actually been found during the raids.
Instead, the prosecution claimed that the police had uncovered a treasure trove of items which were intended to be used for making poisons and explosives. All five defendants, who were linked via the notorious Finsbury Park mosque, were involved to some degree in a terror plot, it was claimed.
No smoking gun
Unsurprisingly, the five’s defence barristers put a different interpretation on events. In the main (and in a nutshell), the defence response to the allegations was that, either the supposedly incriminating items (a fairly mixed bag of things, including batteries, torch bulbs, castor beans and cherry stones) weren’t incriminating at all, but were for entirely innocent purposes, such as in the latter case, making traditional Algerian herbal remedies; or, that the items were nothing to do with them personally, but belonged to Bourgass (described in court as the group’s ‘ringleader’).
There was no ‘smoking gun’; no single piece of evidence incontrovertibly proving that the five were working together with ill intent. Instead, the prosecution case was circumstantial, based on small strands of evidence which it sought to weave together into conclusive proof of guilt. The jury’s job would be to carefully and calmly weigh every claim and counterclaim to determine where the truth might lie.
To do this, the jurors would have to disregard the earlier screaming headlines, and focus solely on the evidence presented to them. They would similarly need to disregard the intense security surrounding the defendants, including armed police in the public gallery, and a helicopter escorting them to and from court. Remaining objective in that kind of heightened atmosphere would have been hard enough, even without the extraordinary intervention of the home secretary.
A few weeks into the trial, David Blunkett told the BBC:
‘Al-Qaeda…will be demonstrated through the courts in months to come, to be actually on our doorstep and threatening our lives. I am talking about people who are … [going] through the court system.’
Blunkett’s comments were taken as a reference to the ricin case, and were unprecedented. For a home secretary to link defendants in an ongoing case to al-Qaeda, when no such claim was ever made in court, was highly prejudicial to their chances of getting a fair trial.
Luckily for the defendants, if the ricin case showed our politicians and media at their worst, it also showed our jury system at its absolute best.
In April 2005, after five months hearing evidence and three weeks’ deliberation, the jury filed back into court to deliver their verdict. The foreman, Lawrence Archer, a fifty-something telecoms engineer, stood up to read them out: Khalef, Sihali, Taleb and Feddag were acquitted of all charges. Bourgass, the alleged ‘ringleader’, was guilty of conspiring to cause a public nuisance. On the more serious charge of conspiracy to commit murder, the jury remained deadlocked and, two days later, were dismissed. (Unbeknown to them, Bourgass had previously been convicted of the murder of a police officer, so would be going to prison for a very long time, in any event.)
These were not the verdicts that the authorities had been hoping for, and the backlash against the acquittals was swift.
Within days, Met commissioner Sir Ian Blair went on BBC television to say they showed it was time to look again at ‘how the legal system deals with cases of this sort.’
Charles Clarke, who was by then home secretary, also cast doubt on the acquitted defendants’ innocence: ‘We will obviously keen a very close eye on the men being freed today and consider exactly what to do in the light of this decision.’
Flying in the face of any actual evidence, Peter Clarke, head of the anti-terror police, insisted that the trial had shown: ‘This was a hugely serious plot because what it had the potential to do was cause real panic, fear, disruption and possibly even death.’
Most newspapers took a similar line. They treated the string of acquittals as an irrelevant detail, and seized on the conviction of Bourgass on the public nuisance charge as proof that there had been a major terrorist plot.
According to The Sun, Bourgass had been ‘unmasked as Osama bin Laden’s master poisoner’. Unmasked how and by whom was not specified (as this certainly hadn’t happened in the trial). What qualified him as ‘master poisoner’ when he hadn’t actually succeeded in making any poison, was equally unclear.
The Mirror labeled Bourgass ‘The Toxic Terrorist’. It went on to claim that ‘the gang of men’ was ‘preparing for jihad in Britain’, and planning to produce ‘a poison which can kill 80,000 people with just ONE GRAM’. Again, where it got its information from was unclear.
The Mirror reproduced a police photo of packs of AA batteries, torch bulbs and superglue, seized in the 2003 raids. They were most likely the result of Bourgass’s frequent shoplifting sprees, but in the fevered imagination of a Mirror sub-editor were transformed into: ‘Electrical components. Enough kit to make several explosive devices.’
The ricin case shows that once media and political panic sets in, objectivity and common sense go out of the window. No claim is too loopy to be published, even by supposedly responsible media outlets. The risible report of ‘soaring’ gas mask sales (referred to above) appeared on the BBC website. Any editor giving that story even a moment’s calm consideration would have spiked it as obvious nonsense (Not least because what kind of uncle, whose niece is in fear of al-Qaida assassins would sell her a gas mask, rather than just give it to her?)
Just as, if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, if you’ve been scared out of your wits by claims of an al-Qaeda plot, every Algerian with a couple of packets of AA batteries starts to look like a bomber, and a handful of cherry stones starts to look like the raw ingredient for cyanide.
But while gutless politicians like Blunkett may be casual about the importance of due process, the likes of Lawrence Archer and the rest of the jury had the courage to ensure justice was done. In the most difficult of circumstances, they put aside their own fears and prejudices, and managed to keep their heads, while all around were losing theirs.
It is 10 years since the jurors delivered their verdict, but the ‘ricin plot trial’ remains the strongest argument I know for maintaining our jury system.
This essay is included in the forthcoming collection of essays Justice in a time of moral panic – out later this this year
Fiona Bawdon is co-author with Lawrence Archer of Ricin! The inside story of the terror plot that never was (Pluto Press, 2010). www.fionabawdon.com