Poison in the air
April 15, 2005 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC Television News.
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The headlines were howls of fear and warning. It was time to cower under the bed.
"The Toxic Terrorist." "He Wanted YOU Dead." "The al-Qaeda plot to poison Britain."
They graced the front pages of London newspapers after a draconian publication ban was lifted on an extraordinary trial.
An Algerian named Kemal Bourgass was convicted of conspiring to cause a public nuisance through the use of poisons and explosives. He was sentenced to 17 years in jail. In an earlier trial he had been sentenced to life in prison for stabbing a police officer to death while trying to escape arrest.
The trials took place in secret.
Bourgass's intention was to make ricin, a highly toxic poison that can be made from castor beans. Police found a recipe, written in Arabic, and some ingredients in the flat where he was staying. Other men were arrested at the same time. This was in January of 2003.
British police and political officials let it be known that they had broken up an al-Qaeda ring that had been planning to wreak havoc in London. They said traces of ricin had been found in the raided apartment
The next month Colin Powell, then American secretary of state, made a speech to the UN security council about the threat Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed to the world. He spoke of a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network." He said the group of men arrested in Britain constituted one of the links in that chain.
According to Powell, North African extremists had been instructed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian extremist linked to al-Qaeda and based in Iraq, to travel to Europe to conduct poison and explosives attacks. "A detainee who helped piece this together says the plot also targeted Britain. Later evidence, again, proved him right. When the British unearthed a cell there just last month, one British police officer was murdered during the disruption of the cell."
British prime minister Tony Blair echoed that: "We have seen powerful evidence of the continuing terrorist threat; the suspected ricin plot in London and Manchester."
But just how powerful was the evidence?
One hundred people were arrested in the roundup. Nine were held in a high-security prison for two years. Four men stood with Bourgass in the dock accused of plotting to make ricin and then take it to smear on door handles of cars and in phone booths to poison people.
But after a marathon trial costing almost $50 million, a jury found the other four not guilty. A further trial for conspiracy involving the remaining four still in prison was abandoned.
The key link in the chain of accusations was a man who did not go on trial. He was the "detainee" referred to by Powell and his name is Muhammed Meguerba. He, too, was Algerian, picked up by British police in 2002 and charged with having a false passport. He skipped bail and fled to Algeria, where police arrested him.
His confession put British police on the trail of Bourgass. Meguerba said Bourgass had trained with al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. He also said he and Bourgass had produced ricin and kept it in two face-cream jars.
The police and the prosecution in London could find no other evidence linking Bourgass to Afghanistan. Indeed, despite initial police reports, they could find no evidence of ricin. There were no face-cream pots and no trace of the poison in the apartment.
All they were left with was the recipe for ricin. An expert witness said it appeared to be a translation of a recipe found on an American internet website. Another expert witness pointed out that the plan to smear ricin on door handles was laughable. To do harm it had to enter the bloodstream.
As for the other defendants, they admitted knowing Bourgass but said they had nothing to do with his plan. Three had been refused political asylum in Britain and were living in limbo with false passports. The fourth so-called "plotter" lived legally in the country, worked in a shop attached to a London mosque and ran the photocopier. His fingerprint was found on a photocopy of the ricin recipe.
The jury acquitted all four. It made no difference to the media coverage or to the comments from senior politicians.
"What the case showed was that there are terrorist organizations which seek to challenge our basic freedom." That, despite the fact that the jury was unconvinced that there was an organized plot, was the conclusion of the British Home Secretary, the man in charge of British police and the fight against terrorism.
Then, even more astonishingly, he said this of the acquitted defendants: "We will obviously keep a very close look at the men freed today."
Defence lawyers were furious. Gareth Pierce defended three of the acquitted men. She said they were victims of a "massive conspiracy tapestry woven by the prosecution." She said she was convinced the evidence from Meguerba, the man in Algerian custody, had been obtained by torture. Defence lawyers were refused access to him except in the presence of Algerian officials. As for British media coverage, she described it as "shameless."
The vast conspiracy to poison Britain didn't convince a jury. The man at the heart of it never succeeded in making any poison and apparently wouldn't have known what to do with it if he had. Yet the "plot" was used to convince a wary world to launch an invasion against Iraq. And it's still being used.
As Britain marches towards an election on May 5, the two main parties now joust with each other to draw the right lessons from the case. The opposition says the fact that the convicted man and several of his acquitted defendants were asylum seekers shows that Britain must impose new, brutal restrictions on people applying for asylum.
Labour, the party of government, says the trial reinforces the need for compulsory ID cards for everyone living in the country. The fight against terrorism demands it.
Fear screams from the headlines. Ricin killed no one but the plot still poisons the air in Britain.