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A fantasy and a witch-hunt

It's just over a year since three Edinburgh men were woken by armed police and driven off to places the press could only describe as "secret locations in Scotland." A fourth man was arrested later in the day when he turned up at one of the flats where the earlier arrests had been made. Another four men were arrested in London and brought up to those "secret locations in Scotland". The men were all charged with offences under the Terrorism Act 2000. They were all Muslim, and they all came from Algeria. Lothian and Borders Police insisted that the arrests had nothing to do with stories about a planned terrorist attack on Edinburgh's Hogmanay party. David Blunkett insisted that there was "no specific terrorist threat." Naturally enough, people concluded that something very frightening was happening. Something so frightening that the authorities couldn't tell all that they knew.

A year on, it looks as if the authorities actually knew rather less than they were telling. The terrorism charges have been dropped with just a week to spare before Scottish law would have required them to come to court. It's been clear for at least nine months that something has gone badly wrong. The men were released on police bail in March. That's to say, they were released on the same bail terms as a shoplifter. That doesn't usually happen to international terrorists. A lot of people are starting to ask questions.

The arrests were the outcome of an intelligence operation. What sort of intelligence could have led to such a blunder? One intelligence item that has been made public was the observation that one of the men - Ghalem Belhadj - had been receiving a suspiciously large number of visitors during Ramadan. That's like complaining that a Christian family has been receiving rather a lot of visitors over Christmas. Was all the intelligence like this? It makes the arrests look suspiciously like a spot-check imposed on the Muslim community in place of proper police work. It would certainly be tempting for the police to do that, given the wide powers granted them under the Terrorism Act 2000 and given the government's determination that "something had to be done" about terrorism. It would be tempting, and it would also be racist.

Between December and about 300 people - nearly all Muslim - were questioned in connection with these cases. Some of them say that police threatened to "make their lives difficult" unless they provided information about the Muslim community. Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar says that in those months Muslims came to him every week with complaints of police trying to bully or bribe them into spying on their community. All this is the product of prejudice fuelled by fantasy. A witch-hunt, in other words.

No act of terrorism associated with Islam has been carried out in Britain. And no evidence that terrorist acts are being planned has been put before a court. Only two Muslims have so far been convicted of offences under the Terrorism Act 2000. They were not planning an act of violence. Their conviction - which they plan to appeal against - was for raising money on of international networks linked to Islamic terrorism. The only people convicted under the Act of activities actually associated with a crime of violence are three Dundee men who were found guilty last June of membership of the Red Hand Commando, a banned Loyalist paramilitary group. They had also robbed a Dundee pub at gunpoint. This was not treated as a terrorist act, even though the men said that their purpose had been to raise money for the paramilitaries. No police dragnet was pulled through the Scottish Protestant community as a result of this, although it can hardly be doubted that it would have netted a handful of small-time Loyalist sympathisers engaged in some kind of criminal activity. It seems Muslims are treated differently just because they are Muslims. With Muslims it's better to be safe than sorry. The Liberal Democrats' deputy leader Menzies Campbell said on Wednesday that police had been right to stop the "possibility" of a crime being committed. Applied to a single community, this is the logic of racism. Applied to everyone, it is the logic of a police state.

It would have been a nice gesture if the police and the Crown Office had tossed the men they netted last Christmas back into regular life once it was clear that they weren't terrorists. It would have been an honourable gesture if the men had been given their day in court, as some of them wanted, so that they could walk free without a stain on their character. Instead the authorities let the charges stand for nine months. Why? Could it be that back in March they didn't want to cast any doubts on the reality of the "terrorist threat?" The country was at war after all. British troops were searching for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, another "threat" that looks very like a fantasy.

The lives of nine men have been turned upside down. If they go back to Algeria their lives will be at risk from people who conclude that there is no smoke without fire. In Edinburgh, Muslims are afraid of the police, afraid to speak out, afraid to take part in politics. Women have had the veils pulled from their faces. Children have suffered taunts. And all this, it will perhaps turn out, has happened just to protect the reputations of Tony Blair and David Blunkett and the officials who took a lead from them. We need a public inquiry that will tease out the threads of the story. Nothing less will drive out the stench out from our public life.

© Richard Haley
December 2003