Don’t be duped by yet another dodgy dossier

MPs should resist the stampede to allow 90-day detentions and look at what police did or did not do to stop the 7/7 attacks

By Gareth Peirce in The Guardian

Any MPs who hold misgivings about supporting an invasion on the basis of a dossier later discovered to have been utterly misleading ought now to be demanding a proper, transparent investigation into what the police did and did not do that might have prevented the bombings in London of July 7; and they ought to treat with extreme caution the “dossiers” prepared to support 90-day detentions.

The leader of the opposition, in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, asked for just such an inquiry. Were that to have been conducted, the present stampede, with justifications for numbers of days of detention plucked out of the air, could not possibly be happening. While some reports have hinted at police incompetence and failure to arrest those involved in advance of the bombings, these are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. A far-reaching inquiry might well show that not one second of additional time for interrogations would have been needed to redress a complete failure to use any of the powers already in police hands. All that is needed is for MPs to say: “Pause for a moment, let us have a proper, truthful explanation.”

As a starting point for its justification, the police dossier revisits the ricin case, in which a number of innocent men were acquitted – an outcome intensely disliked by the police. Now they claim that had they had 90 days, or perhaps 29, or maybe 19, the outcome would have been very different, and that “the suspect who fled the country while on bail and who eventually proved to have been a prime conspirator would have stood trial in this country”. The police held that suspect for two days. It was their decision to release him. Where does the need for 90 days come from?

In contradiction of the police claim that they needed more time to liaise with foreign jurisdictions, the head of MI5 is on record as saying that this country could not make inquiries of a regime such as Algeria (to discover if the originator of information had been tortured) lest it stop the free flow of information.

So far as 90 days might have been advantageous “to understand the complexities of the conspiracy before the decision was required to charge or release”, the police appear to forget that from day one they (and the prime minister) were trumpeting a plot involving chemical weapons. Two years later it was left to a hapless witness from Porton Down to suggest that it was his fault that the instantaneous discovery that there had been no ricin had not been communicated to Scotland Yard or the government. Memories are short. The rush to judgment came not from any 14-day restriction (most of those charged were held for considerably less than seven days); it came from an urgent political desire to seize upon a pot of Nivea cream that in the end was discovered to contain no poisonous material.

Further justifications are just as shoddy. Time is needed to “establish the identity of subjects”. What is not explained is that at Paddington Green police station, suspects often wait for 48 hours or considerably longer for a first interview confined to name, address and elementary background details. Look at any custody record of any detainee under terrorism legislation, and you will see that for 90% of the time or more no interviews take place. Solicitors often beg for some movement; demands after as much as a week for a reason to be given for the arrest fall on deaf ears. Solicitors waiting to be present at interviews that never take place can be seen patrolling Edgware Road, since the rebuilding of the security section, at a cost of millions, failed to leave room for them – and did not provide more than two interview rooms. So when the turn comes for detainees to be interrogated, they are told there is “no interview room at the moment”.

Where is the detainee meanwhile? I find it impossible to believe that the grim unpleasantness of the cells can be anything other than intended, especially given the costly revamp. It has left 365 hideous white tiles on the walls of each cell (as an Irishman counted some years ago). There is a hard plastic mattress on a wooden plank, with an open toilet at one end. A bare light in the high ceiling is difficult enough to read by, but the life-saving distraction of reading matter is more often than not forbidden. There is no natural light; the 14 days of detention are spent in an underworld without fresh air or proper ventilation – an inescapable part of the anticipated experience. In warm weather, heat comes from pipes under the bunk. In cold weather, unpleasant-smelling oil heaters are pushed uselessly into the corridors.

At the end of a 14-day period of interviews, lawyers themselves are often ill and exhausted. Effects on detainees are far more drastic: in a number of cases, police have had to pay compensation to innocent detainees who suffered permanent trauma after their release; one woman’s menstrual cycle was drastically altered after a seven-day detention, and her partner suffered alopecia; many students have never resumed their studies; one man succeeded in committing suicide, and many others have tried.

MPs would do well to remember the legislative stampede in December 2001 to detain foreign nationals indefinitely without trial. Parliamentarians were reassured that detention would be a last resort; that reassurance was entirely false. Men who it was claimed were the most serious terrorism suspects in this country at the time were not questioned for 14 minutes, let alone 14 days.

Parliamentarians have been duped twice into supporting steps necessary for a “war on terror”. To allow this to happen a third time would be a wholesale dereliction of their duty.

‘ Gareth Peirce is a partner at Birnberg Peirce solicitors who has represented numerous detainees under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001