'the Kafkaesque life of a terror suspect in Britain'
Ian Cobain, http://www.theguardian.com/uk
Sunday 5 July 2015 18.00 BST
This is a true story.
One January morning, Y went to the cashpoint near his home to draw out some money. When the machine swallowed his card, he went into the bank, where he was told he needed to contact the card provider.
He arranged to visit a local branch of his own bank, where he was introduced to the manager. Y noticed that the manager appeared to be slightly nervous. A man and a woman walked over to Y, asked him to confirm his name, then asked him to accompany them to another office at the bank. Inside, six or seven policemen were waiting. Y was informed that he was being arrested as a suspected terrorist. He was handcuffed, and led away.
That was in 2003. Since then, Y has been convicted of no criminal offence – “not so much as a parking ticket”, he says – yet has spent years behind bars. When allowed out of prison, he has faced extraordinary restrictions on his movements.
Y is told in which house he must live. At one point, he was told in which town he must reside. On first arriving at his new home, he is given a map of the neighbourhood, on which is marked a boundary beyond which he cannot stray. If he crosses the boundary, he may be sent to jail. He is told how long he can remain outside his home: initially, he was allowed out for just two hours each afternoon. He must wear an electronic tag, which is linked to a sensor in his home, and must telephone the company that operates the tag every morning and every evening. If he fails to make the call, he may be sent to jail.
Y cannot meet anyone without the prior permission of the government. Any prospective employer must agree to be vetted by the government and, as a result, few are prepared to give him a job. If he returns to education, the government will decide what he can study.
Visitors are not permitted to remain in his home overnight. He has recently been given permission to buy a computer, but he must connect to the internet by cable, and is barred from using email, Skype or any form of social media. If he attempts to do so, he may be sent to jail.
And then there is the little matter of his name. When Franz Kafka wrote The Trial, his story of a young man who is subjected to a bewildering legal process that he can never influence, the novelist at least gave his protagonist, Josef K, a first name.
By order of a court, the Guardian cannot publish Y’s real name. We may identify him only as Y. If we breach the order, I may be sent to jail.
All this is happening in Britain in 2015.
Y was born 45 years ago in a town in western Algeria, where he worked for many years as a tax inspector. He was a supporter of the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamist political party whose imminent victory in the general election of January 1992 was annulled by a military coup. After the coup, members of the party were arrested or murdered, and the country slid into civil war. Y was detained and severely beaten: he still carries the scars. The Algerian government says he is a terrorist. It is an allegation he denies.
In 1998, he left Algeria for Spain, and, in 2000, he arrived in the UK. In Algeria, meanwhile, he was tried in absentia, convicted of criminal association, and sentenced to death.
In the UK, Y claimed asylum and, in 2001, was given indefinite leave to remain. He settled in north London and helped to run the bookshop at the mosque in Finsbury Park, which would later become infamously and inextricably linked with the preacher Abu Hamza.
In early January 2003, as the countdown began to the invasion of Iraq, police raided a flat above a pharmacy in nearby Wood Green and arrested six men on suspicion of attempting to use the seeds of castor oil plants to make ricin, the highly toxic protein.
The media went into overdrive. The Mirror, for example, gave over its entire front page to a graphic showing a skull and crossbones over a map of Britain, below the banner headline: “IT’S HERE”. The BBC reported that sales of gas masks were soaring.
Tony Blair said “the find” highlighted the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, while the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, referred to the “UK poison cell” while making the case for the invasion of Iraq to the UN.
It was against this background that Y was arrested: his fingerprints were found on a ricin recipe discovered at the Wood Green flat. The only problem with the ricin plot was that there was no ricin. None. There never had been any, but there was no public admission of this until 2005, when a government scientist was compelled to reveal the truth while giving evidence at the Old Bailey, where Y and the other men were on trial, accused of conspiracy to murder.
Clearly somebody at the flat had been up to no good, in a bumbling sort of way: there were a small number of ingredients that could be used in an attempt to manufacture ricin, plus the recipe. And one of the defendants, Kamel Bourgass, was extraordinarily dangerous: while on the run after the Wood Green raid, he stabbed to death a Manchester policer officer, Stephen Oake.
Y’s defence was that he operated the photocopier at the mosque bookshop, and that his fingerprints would be on thousands of documents he had never read; he said he had never met Bourgass. At the end of the trial, Bourgass was convicted of the lesser charge of conspiring to cause a public nuisance. He had already been jailed for life for the murder. Y and three other defendants were cleared – the jury was unanimous – and the prosecution of four further men was abandoned.
Y, who had been held in Belmarsh high-security prison in south-east London, was a free man, but that did not last long. The Home Office gave notice that it was going to attempt to deport him to Algeria, regardless of the death sentence hanging over him, and a few months later he was detained, pending deportation. He is almost philosophical about this turn of events: “It was after 7/7 and the home secretary – I think it was Charles Clarke at that time – had to show that he was doing something.”
The jurors were furious, however. Two of them, who had subsequently befriended Y, wrote in the Guardian that a government “that seems bent on chiselling away at civil liberties” was ignoring their verdict.
And Y was about to have his first dealings with the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, or Siac, a place for which the adjective Kafkaesque could have been created.
Siac is the extraordinarily secretive court that deals with appeals against government proposals to deport people believed to pose a risk to national security. Aptly, perhaps, it convenes underground, in the basement of a building off Chancery Lane in central London. There is a curtain around the witness box from which unseen members of MI5 give evidence, and a screen down the centre of the court to shield government observers from the gaze of members of the public or the press. Not that many journalists attend Siac. One of the few who does, the BBC home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani, says: “It’s the only court I can think of where I can be told there is a case of national importance, only to find the doors locked and no clear indication of when they are going to open.”
It is not only the journalists who are turfed out of court on a regular basis: so, too, are the appellants and their lawyers. Whenever the government deploys what it euphemistically calls “closed evidence”, the appellants can be represented only by government-appointed barristers known as “special advocates”. And once the special advocates have seen the government’s secret evidence, they cannot talk to the appellants to take instructions.
As a consequence, Y cannot know the evidence that the government relies on at Siac. It is clear, however, that MI5 believes the Old Bailey jury reached the wrong verdict, and,in 2006, after seeing the secret evidence, Siac concluded that he did pose a risk to national security.
Y was released on bail from Belmarsh and went to live in the house of a man in east London, a peace activist who wished to help. “The problem was that he had to keep his computer locked in a box, and his daughter had to get permission from the Home Office to visit him. Even his cleaner had to get permission to come inside the house.”
Y told the Home Office he wanted to move and was found a new home in north London. At this point, he was allowed out of the building for two hours each day, between midday and 2pm. The house was on a road opposite a park, but he was forbidden to enter: the boundary on the map that he was given ran down the middle of the road. “Why were the boundaries drawn that way? I was never told.”
Later that year, when the government began to believe it had a chance of deporting Y, he was detained once more so that he could not abscond. This time he was sent to Long Lartin maximum security prison in Worcestershire. Bail was refused – for “reasons which can only be given in closed”, said the Siac judge – and Y began receiving treatment for depression. It was almost two years before he was released, and this time he was told he must live in a house in a small town 45 miles north of London.
“On my second day there I was late returning to the house. It was a Friday, I had been to the nearest mosque, but it was on the other side of the next town and I missed the bus on the way back. I ran, but I was late. The following Monday lots of plainclothes police from London arrived. I was driven straight to Belmarsh, and was back up before Siac in the morning. The judge let me go back to the house.”
Over the years that followed, Y’s case continued to ping-pong back and forth between Siac, the high court and the supreme court. It still does: he’s due back before Siac next month. In theory, he is on Siac bail pending deportation. In reality, he is living a life controlled by the government. He is not alone: seven other men are also on Siac bail.
That life is getting easier. In 2011, Y was allowed to return to London, and now lives in a house in the north of the city that is provided by the Home Office. “It’s got two bedrooms and a garden. It’s quite nice. I’d have been happy with a flat.”
He receives £74 a week in income support benefit, and works as a volunteer at a local Roman Catholic church, carrying out small repairs. As well as being allowed to use a computer at home, he is permitted to carry a simple mobile phone. He assumes his calls are monitored.
Y’s curfew conditions have been eased, and he is required to be at home only between midnight and 8am. His map is bigger too: today, Y’s world stretches all the way from Euston Road on the edge of central London, to the North Circular Road, six miles away. There is one street in the middle that remains out of bounds. “Don’t ask me why.”
In addition, he is permitted to go to the British Museum or the National Gallery, providing he gives 48 hours’ notice. He can also apply for permission to travel further afield and, on occasion, it is granted. He recently travelled to Canterbury, for example, although the Home Office warned him that he was permitted only to visit the cathedral and museum, and not the city itself. “They also said I couldn’t stop for a coffee at the railway station.” He shakes his head. “Someone’s sitting there in an office, making up these conditions.”
Y had been engaged to be married before his 2003 arrest, but the relationship could not survive the strictures of Siac bail. “We split up. She would have been subjected to all the same conditions, and she couldn’t live with all these conditions.”
His relatives live in Algeria and many of his friends eventually fell away. He finds it all but impossible to make new ones. Prearranged meetings need to be agreed with the Home Office. “And people from my community, the Algerian community, when they hear the words Home Office, they run: they’re scared of the Home Office. It’s hard, making friends.”
One of the few who has befriended Y is Bruce Kent, the former Catholic priest and vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was while sitting with Kent in a Costa Coffee shop, not far from Y’s home, that Y was pointed out to me.
He seems to be a patient man, and has not lost his sense of humour. From time to time he laughs out loud when describing some of the more absurd curbs that he has faced. At other times he uses the word “normal” to describe the restrictions. “Well, they’re normal to me now. I’ve been living with them for 12 years. They’ve become the norm.”
He still suffers from depression, however, and takes a range of antidepressants as well as sleeping tablets. “And I’m getting forgetful. Maybe it’s the stress. I’m really worried that one day I will forget to make the phone call to the tag company. And then I’ll go back to jail.”