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The truth behind the “ricin poison conspiracy”

Crescent International

The timing could hardly have been better: within days of Tony Blair’s confirming that Britain’s general elections will be held on May 5, an illegal immigrant from Algeria was convicted at the high court of what government officials, police and the media described as an international conspiracy, planned by al-Qai’da, to manufacture ricin poison and use it for a mass terrorist attack in London. The fact that Kamel Bourgass had earlier also been convicted for the murder of a police officer while trying to resist arrest in January 2003 added to the hysteria and the story. Both Britain’s main political parties immediately seized on the story for political gain; Blair and his ministers emphasised that Britain faces a major and serious terrorist threat that justifies his government’s increasing curtailment of civil liberties, and opposition leader Michael Howard accuses Blair of failing to protect the country.

The massive media interest in the story was perhaps not surprising, considering that the London ricin conspiracy has been a main-stay of Western allegations about the terrorist threat for over two years. Indeed, former US secretary of state Colin Powell cited the case in his speech to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003, pressing for war again Iraq. Stating that “every statement I make today is backed by solid intelligence sources”, he spoke of a “sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network... plotting to conduct poison and explosive attacks throughout Europe. [...] When the British uncovered a cell there last month, one British police officer was killed during the disruption of the cell.”

What exactly, then, were Bourgass and his conspirators convicted of? The surprising truth is that Bourgass was convicted only of “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance”; not of any terrorist-related offenses, not even of conspiracy to commit murder, but only of planning to commit a “public nuisance”. What is more, despite all the talk about an al-Qa’ida cell and a conspiracy, his four co-defendants and supposed co-conspirators, all Algerians, were cleared of all charges except being in the country illegally and having false documents. Four more men, three Algerians and a Libyan, who were due to be tried separately, had all charges against them dropped because the prosecution case had been thoroughly discredited during the first trial.

All eight were released as innocent men, with no stain on their characters; but instead of asking how they came to be charged in the first place, in the midst of massively prejudicial statements from politicians and police officers, and hysterical coverage in Britain’s notorious tabloid media, the official and media response to their acquittals was to imply that they were guilty in any case and should have been convicted. Legal experts have been highly critical of the prosecution and the surrounding hysteria, but this has received coverage only in a few serious newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent, while the rest of the press have been happy to support the government line.

In fact, the evidence presented at the trial showed that Bourgass was what legal experts described as “lonely, deluded fantasist” rather than part of a wider conspiracy. Contrary to widely reported and oft-repeated government claims that ricin had been found at his flat, the court heard from experts that all that had been found were handwritten recipes for ricin apparently copied from American white-supremacist websites, and some of the ingredients for these recipes, including castor oil, industrial alcohol, cherry stones and apple pips. Experts told the court that it would have been impossible to produce ricin from the recipes, that ricin was in any case highly unsuitable for terrorist purposes, and that far more dangerous poisons are easily obtainable from British stores as weed-killer or rat poison. The court also heard that Bourgass had been planning to smear the ricin (which he never actually made) on car and door handles in London, which experts said would have been virtually harmless even if it had been done, as ricin needs to be injected into the bloodstream or ingested in substantial quantities to be dangerous. It was this vague plan that the jury reasonably interpreted as potential “public nuisance” rather than terrorism.

Legal experts also pointed out that most of the more hysterical claims against Bourgass were based on information provided by a former associate, Muhammad Meguerba, who had been arrested and interrogated by Algerian security agencies after returning from London to Algeria. Meguerba, who was unofficially acknowledged by prosecution lawyers to be an unreliable source, apparently told the Algerians that he was a member of al-Qa’ida who had been trained in poisons at an al-Qa’ida camp Afghanistan in the late summer of 2002. The Algerian authorities passed this information to the British, leading to Bourgass’s arrest.

However, Meguerba’s information, which was obtained under torture, has also been discredited, with experts pointing out that the US had occupied Afghanistan, and al-Qa’ida’s camps there had been closed, by the summer of 2002. British police officers who interviewed Meguerba found that he repeatedly changed his story according to what his interrogators wanted to hear. The prosecutors simply took what they wanted from his various stories to prosecute Bourgass and the other eight defendants, ignoring the rest.

The truth seems to be that Meguerba knew of Bourgass’s fantasies about ricin, and, under torture, used them to give Algerian authorities what they wanted to hear. It was this that the British government, desperate to raise the fear of al-Qa’ida and terrorism, turned into a two-year pursuit of Bourgass and eight wholly-innocent associates. Unfortunately, given the government’s misrepresentation of the case, and the media’s hysterical coverage, the British public is unlikely ever to learn this truth. Instead, reports of an plot for a mass poison attack on London have been seared into the mass consciousness, helping to justify Tony Blair’s support for US foreign policy, his increasing curtailment of civil rights in Britain, and the routine demonization of Muslims, particularly Islamic activists.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 3

Rabi' al-Awwal 22, 14262005-05-01

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