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Ricin jurors speak out

Our verdict was ignored
Jurors in the ricin trial speak out

The Guardian19 September 2006

When a buff envelope containing a jury service summons drops on the doormat, most people can look forward to spending two weeks in a local court. Our experience was different: in April last year we completed seven months at the Old Bailey sitting on a terrorism case, the so-called ricin trial. The crown alleged a conspiracy by Algerian men, all loosely linked through the Finsbury Park mosque, to produce poisons, one a deadly toxin called ricin. We found one guilty and four not guilty. But there was a problem: despite hysteria in the media, no ricin was found. And rather than accept the fact that they were not conspirators, there was an assumption that those acquitted "got away with it".

We were annoyed after the trial at the amount of misinformation in the news, but this turned to anger when the government announced that the acquitted men were to be deported to Algeria, where they could face imprisonment, torture or death. We took an unusual step in talking to the media about our concerns over the deportations and how we felt our verdicts had been disregarded. Two of the men from the trial were arrested last September and put in Belmarsh prison, labelled a threat to national security. They were "released" on bail four months later on condition that they wore electronic tags, limited their movements to a small area and observed a curfew, among other measures.

Our concern for the fate of the acquitted men has grown, and we have finally met some of them. One - Mr Y - had been granted leave to stay in the UK in 2000, based on the fact that he had been tortured in Algeria. The authorities there claimed he was a member of a terrorist group - a once legitimate political party now deemed illegal for opposing the government.

Mr Y said he had never used or condoned violence, and had merely supported the families of men who had fled the massacres that were common at the time. We listened, appalled, as he calmly described how he had been kicked and punched "as an hors d'oeuvre", and then catalogued a list of horrific abuse. His head still bears deep scars from his beatings. Our government granted him asylum as a result of this torture; now it uses information that he gave in his asylum claim against him.

Mr Y's other crime seems to be that he worked at the Finsbury Park mosque. He was employed at the mosque's independently owned bookshop at a time when the mosque was deemed to be a hotbed of unrest.

At the end of last month, Mr Y's bail was revoked and he was sent back to Belmarsh. A special immigration appeals commission (SIAC) hearing cleared the way for him to be deported to Algeria as a threat to UK security. The SIAC is, in our view, like a boxing match where one contender is blindfolded and has both hands tied behind his back, as the prosecution can use evidence heard in secret that the defence team is not allowed to hear. The open-court evidence offered against Mr Y in the ricin trial was used again, despite the fact that he had been found not guilty. Mr Justice Ouseley, the SIAC chairman, found that there was no reasonable cause to suspect that Mr Y will be harmed if he is returned, based on diplomatic assurances from Algeria. The fact that he has a death sentence on his head in Algeria, and Amnesty International remains convinced that torture is still in use there, seems only a minor concern; he will be a free man on his return, we are assured.

This raises an interesting question: if Mr Y is considered a security threat in the UK, why is the UK government happy to allow him to wander free in Algeria, where presumably he could recruit and plot away to his heart's content? If Lord Carlile - the independent scrutineer of the anti-terror laws - accuses Amnesty of being "naive", what does this make our government?

From our experiences of Mr Y, he is a calm, modest, intelligent man who abhors violence and was happy to be granted leave to stay in the UK - not a raving Islamist extremist bent on destroying the country that took him in. He had hoped to rebuild his life; now that looks highly unlikely and he faces a long fight through the appeals system.

We two jurors have been deemed "brave" and "unusual" for taking a stand. We feel neither. We feel angry and betrayed by a government we thought we could trust that seems bent on chiselling away at civil liberties. Neither of us was politically active. The case of Mr Y and the others has changed that.