Porton Down scientists who tried to recreate Bourgass's experiments found that they might have produced material sufficient to kill a large sheep, but not a single human being, let alone thousands."
LeaderSunday April 17, 2005
Last week, the public was finally allowed to know that Kamel Bourgass, a 31-year-old Algerian asylum seeker, had been found guilty of the murder of a Manchester policeman, Stephen Oake, whom he stabbed during an immigration raid in January 2003. The guilty verdict was handed down last year, but could not be reported until the end of trials of his alleged conspirators in a plot to poison London using ricin. This plot turned out to be little more than a fantasy in Bourgass's head. No traces were found of the ricin he was alleged to have been making from castor-oil beans, not a trace of botulinum or cyanide was located, despite recipes found in his possession. Porton Down scientists who tried to recreate Bourgass's experiments found that they might have produced material sufficient to kill a large sheep, but not a single human being, let alone thousands.
Last week, Bourgass was convicted of conspiring to cause a public nuisance using his schoolboy knowledge culled from the internet. Four of his supposed conspirators were found not guilty on all charges and a second trial involving four more north African suspects was dropped as a result.
This trial was supposed to be the 'big one', when we would discover that the threat to the United Kingdom was real and that the government had not been indulging in the politics of fear. Instead, it has further fed suspicions that the police and CPS are not up to the job of investigating terrorists.
While £50 million was being spent on the doomed 'ricin' trial, we have to ask: what was happening to the real terrorists who genuinely threaten our way of life? But there is cause for celebration here: the much maligned English jury system has been shown to be robust. The jury deliberated in the face of a barrage of negative media coverage and prejudicial comments from former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who was ticked off for suggesting the trial would prove the existence of an al-Qaeda network here.
We should be celebrating the conviction of a brutal murderer and the acquittal of four innocent men. A terrible miscarriage has been avoided.
With poison in their souls
The demonisation of the ricin suspects by politicians and the media smacks of SalemMary Riddell
Sunday April 17, 2005
Kitchen table terror is not new. The Wood Green 'ricin' larder, stocked with lethal ingredients, such as cherry stones and apple pips, brings back memories of Auntie Annie's 'bomb factory' at the height of the IRA's mainland assault.
Annie Maguire, a court was told, taught her small children how to mix up nitroglycerine for the paramilitaries in her Kilburn parlour. Under prosecution questioning about what bombs looked like, her son, Patrick, drew on his knowledge of the Beano and described a 'long black ball with a wire coming out of it'.
The fantasy was enough. Mrs Maguire, a monster for a fearful nation, was jailed for many years. Two of her sons were also locked up and her younger children farmed out. Of those sentenced with her, her brother-in-law, Giuseppe Conlon, died in prison, of emphysema and despair, with an inmates' chorus of 'What shall we do with the fucking bombers?' in his ears.
More than a quarter of a century later, in February this year, Tony Blair apologised publicly to the Maguire seven for one of the gravest miscarriages of justice of the last century. There was no bomb factory and no plot. Annie Maguire and her family had long since been declared innocent. They deserved, the Prime Minister said, to be 'completely and publicly exonerated.'
By then, another war on terror was in train. Other suspects had supposedly been bottling death like marmalade, and the long trial of Kamel Bourgass and his alleged co-chefs was nearing its end. Last week, Bourgass was convicted of conspiring to cause a public nuisance. Four others were cleared and a second trial of four more men abandoned.
There was no ricin and no al-Qaeda recipe, only a formula apparently confected by a white American Christian survivalist and downloaded from the internet. Even if Bourgass, a nasty and deluded loner, had managed to create his poison and smear it on car-door handles, it would not have worked. Had Bourgass the poisoner devoted himself to creating the perfect Nigella chickpea couscous, he could hardly have been a less likely mass exterminator.
But he had another persona. Bourgass the murderer, a failed asylum seeker, knifed Stephen Oake to death when the police came looking for him. The killing of a brave officer shifted the story into the arms of Michael Howard, who flouted the compassion of DC Oake's widow and attacked the 'chaos' of the asylum system.
Labour is unlikely to have minded this switch of focus. The annual number of asylum applicants, now 34,000, has almost halved since Bourgass applied, and the backlog of cases has been sliced from 50,000 to 10,000 in a decade. Electronic fingerprinting and e-borders make police better able to find people who change identity, as he did, and monitor who is entering and leaving the country.
There is evidence, too, that Mr Howard's own-brand fear factory is driving voters towards Labour. Last of all, the Home Secretary has seized the chance to promote ID cards, even though they would have made not a shred of difference in the Bourgass case. The Tories' insidious opportunism on asylum and immigration should not disguise that the government also cashed in on bogus ricin, disseminating panic with an efficiency of which Bourgass could only dream.
In the absence of chemical poison, a war against Iraq, a fake link between al-Qaeda and Saddam and a double helping of contempt of court were brewed up on Kamel Bourgass's hob. Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Colin Powell and senior police officers all used the arrests to illustrate the existence of a new breed of Islamist super-terrorist. A criminal prosecution was exploited to fit a political agenda. A war was justified and civil liberties imperilled by the ricin stash that never was.
The case is over, but old myths die hard. In the age of the precautionary principle and Donald Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns, reality gets so sparse that even the most blatant lies acquire substance.
The day after the case ended, London's Evening Standard was barmily talking up 'a new terror fear over lost poison' on the basis of a police claim that an al-Qaeda cell could have the 'missing ricin'. But even if a quantity of poison existed, which it did not, it would have harmlessly degraded long ago. Fear and prejudice have a longer half-life. Once manufactured, they are almost impossible to unmake.
Right-wing conflation of asylum and terror will be difficult to unknot. Lawyers for the eight cleared men are outraged at the way their clients have been portrayed by the media and politicians, and there is so little acknowledgment of a just result, from the Home Office and elsewhere, that one wonders if dodgy convictions would have left some politicians more satisfied. Meanwhile, a new terror law, more draconian than expected, is in the Labour manifesto, pushing criminal trials for those who 'glorify or condone acts of terror'.
The hunger for something new eclipses the fact that all necessary means were in place to stop Bourgass, who slipped through the immigration net after a shoplifting conviction because no official was available to interview him and whose murder of DC Oake followed some questionable operational decisions by Greater Manchester police.
Bourgass will, probably and rightly, spend the bulk of his life in jail. But, as our leaders have not said, it was also proper that those charged with him were cleared. None was vindicated because terror prosecutions are too difficult or evidence inadmissible. They were supposedly caught in the kitchen with their fingers in the ricin pot. Nothing could be more damning, except that it wasn't true.
A panel of their peers devoted many weeks to assessing the evidence and discovered that there was none. The result was a tribute to beleaguered juries and a vindication of a justice system that politicians often deem too arcane, or too wilful, for an age of nameless fears and elusive proof.
The affair of the sham ricin casts a long shadow over the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the credulous sensationalists of the media and, most of all, over politicians. Last week was a good one for the rule of law, but the sullen reaction to the outcome also highlights a dangerous disregard for justice.
Eight innocent men were presumed guilty. Ten others held for two years without charge reportedly had non-existent links to the ricin plot cited on their government control orders. Sanctions get harsher and the borderline grows fainter between fair trials and wild allegation garbed in flimsy intelligence and sanctified as truth. All the lessons of what could happen next lie in our recent past.
Justice tailored to a time of terror, real or perceived, is the shortcut back to the world in which Annie Maguire was torn from the dock, kicking and hysterical, to begin her 14-year-sentence. 'I'm innocent, you bastards,' she cried. 'No, no, no.' But this was Salem. So the door slammed on her screaming and almost no one thought she might be right.