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Released without charge after nearly two weeks police interrogation over an alleged terror plot, nearly a dozen Pakistani students are now being further detained by immigration officials pending deportation as ‘a threat to national security’. Legitimate incarceration or just the State trying to cover it’s back asks Steve Beauchampe?

All twelve men arrested in a blaze of publicity over what quickly came to be known as the ‘Easter Bomb Plots’ (aka Operation Pathway) are innocent. We know they are because despite a huge and unparalleled raft of anti-terror legislation (much of it introduced in recent years) which allows the police to press charges for activities with only the most tenuous of links to the planting of bombs, or to killing or maiming, the twelve have been released without charge.

This after thirteen days of what will undoubtedly have been intense and repeated questioning. Indeed, Greater Manchester Police, who carried out the arrests on behalf of MI5, didn’t even consider it necessary to apply to a High Court Judge for an extension of the mens’ detention of up to 28 days, as the law allows.

From start to finish this case has been an embarrassment and PR disaster for the police, senior politicians and the security services, an expose of their incompetence from the moment Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations Bob Quick exited a car brandishing a document showing details of the counter intelligence operation, a gaffe for which he quickly resigned.

Within hours the media were carrying claims that the arrests had foiled a massive terror attack designed to bring Eastertide carnage to the North West, with shopping meccas such as Manchester’s Arndale and Trafford centres and the city’s Birdcage nightclub said to be the prime targets.

Unnamed police sources were quoted as saying there was an ‘imminent and credible threat’ and that ‘these are the most significant terrorism arrests for some time’. In the headlong rush to publish the most lurid scare stories few stopped to consider the chronology. Apparently the arrests had been brought forward following Quick’s unwitting expose. Really? By how much? It was all but Easter anyway!

Meanwhile Prime Minister Gordon Brown, having claimed that, “we are dealing with a very big terrorist plot”, was issuing stern warnings to Pakistan to stop sending would-be terrorists to Britain under the guise of being students, while the Pakistani High Commissioner to Britain was telling the UK to tighten who it issues student visas to.

So where exactly did the media get their stories from, given that specific details of the case had not been officially released? The Met? MI5? Greater Manchester Police? the Home Office? Downing Street?

We may never be told, but many of these organisations have form when it comes to information leaks and there are plenty of jobbing journalists and editors around, increasingly used to simply reproducing press releases, who are more than willing to parrot such ‘information’ seemingly without question in order to make good copy.

So are the arrested men, all but one of them living in the UK on student visas, allowed to return to their studies? Like heck they are!

Instead, they are summarily passed to the Borders and Immigration Service (BIS) in readiness for deportation (eleven of the twelve are Pakistani nationals) on the grounds that they pose a threat to national security.

This vague, indefinable piece of legalese jargon provides the security services with an escape clause, a way of avoiding their culpability for yet another security cock up. Kick out the Muslims while labelling them as terrorists who got away with it. Ruin their reputations and damn the concept of innocent until proven guilty, anything to avoid admitting failings and offering redress.

No one disputes that the police have a duty to arrest and question those whom they believe may be engaged in criminal activity, but it is the spin and politicking that so often accompanies high profile cases that leaves such a sour taste. Because the State and its servants are rarely honorable enough to say sorry, acknowledge their mistakes and recognise the impact these have on innocent lives.

Ask the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four, still waiting to hear for the ‘s’ word for the gross crimes committed against them by the British judicial system. Ask Barry George; when George was cleared of murdering of Jill Dando in 2008, following many years in prison, the Met pronounced themselves, not contrite, but ‘disappointed’.

Ask the Forest Gate Two, shot at and nearly killed during a bungled police anti-terror raid at their home and who eventually successfully sued the police for damages. Ask the student arrested and interrogated for a week in 2008 (and recently interviewed on Radio 4) after downloading a ‘terrorist’ training document (having first received authorisation from his university) and then warned that if he did so again, despite their being no grounds on which to charge him the first time, he would be re-arrested.

And ask the doctor cleared in the 2007 Glasgow bomb plot, lurid and wholly inaccurate stories about him repeatedly splashed over the newspapers, yet when declared innocent last autumn also subjected to deportation attempts by the BIS, a body seemingly more interested in pandering to tabloid immigration fears than overseeing a fair and equitable public service.

And ask Colin Stagg, cleared of the murder of Rachel Nickel. Stagg did get an apology but only after waiting many years before someone in the Met finally acknowledged how their incompetence had ruined his life and reputation.

Arguably worse is what increasingly appears to be the police and security services’ default position of covering up failings by ‘leaking’ erroneous or irrelevant information about innocent victims in an attempt to sully their good character, as in the case of John Charles De Menezes, or newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson, who died following a police assault at the recent G20 protests.

Still, out of sight, out of mind. The twelve former Easter terror suspects may still be alive, but back in Pakistan, they’ll be less of a thorn in the British Government’s side, less able to sue the newspapers who so readily defamed them, less able to challenge or disprove the unsubstantiated allegations inherent in their deportation, less able to talk about their no doubt terrifying experiences as innocent men in custody.

Meanwhile, community relations particularly in the North West where the men resided, are further set back, diplomatic relations with Pakistan placed under strain. And the next time we read of a major terror threat being plotted or foiled, a few more folk will be just that bit more sceptical and unbelieving. And that could be dangerous or it could be healthy, but if you cry wolf enough times...



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