It says something about the world we now live in that we know more about Mullah Omar’s terror plans, despite the fact he has been in hiding for the last decade, than about someone who has undergone the scrutiny of two criminal trials at London’s Old Bailey, arguably the world’s most famous courthouse.
Thanks to the Afghan Taliban’s publication of Mullah Omar’s bizarre biography on April 6, we know about his love of grenade launchers, particularly the RPG-7, his “preferred weapon of choice,” and his future plans for Afghanistan.
If only we knew as much about the plans of the man whom British security and intelligence agencies believe poses such a grave risk to the national security of the United Kingdom that details of his arrest, terrorist plots and trials must be kept secret.
You may recall the case of Erol Incedal, a British national, who has twice stood trial on terrorism charges since being arrested at gunpoint in 2013. In an unprecedented move, the British government had attempted to hold both trials in secret, in the interests of “national security.” Following a legal challenge by media groups a compromise was arranged in which the trial was divided into three parts: public, in other words open to media and members of the public; private, with 10 “accredited journalists” allowed to attend but banned from reporting what they saw or heard; and closed, meaning completely secret, with just the accused, lawyers and the jury present.
Last year Incedal was convicted of possessing a bomb-making document on a mobile phone memory card. But the jury failed to reach a verdict on the more serious charge of planning a terrorist attack on behalf of ISIS. This included allegedly targeting former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and plotting a “Mumbai-style” attack in London.
After a second trial, even more of which was held in secret and which ended last month, a jury finally acquitted Incedal of that charge. This came after police and security agencies admitted that they had no idea what his alleged terror target was.
Following his acquittal Incedal was jailed on April 1 for three and a half years on the earlier charge of possessing the bomb-making document, a shorter sentence than the average house burglar receives. His friend, Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who last year pleaded guilty to being in possession of an identical document, was jailed for three years. Having already spent 17 months on remand both men are likely to be free within months. The situation is beyond farce. What on earth was all this secrecy about?
Sentencing the two men, the judge, Mr. Justice Nicol, actually told them that they were not terrorists, but added that parliament had made possessing instructions for homemade bombs an offense because of the danger of their being in circulation.
So we can’t even call this a secret terror trial anymore. It’s just a sordid secret trial where the entire weight of the government has been used to ride roughshod over the principle of open justice, for no apparent reason. Considering that what the jury heard convinced them that Incedal was not plotting terror attacks, and bearing in mind the lengths to which the government went to keep this trial a secret, it must surely be in the national interest to know why Incedal has been cleared of being a terrorist.
This is the crux of the matter because we have no idea what really lay at the heart of Incedal’s prosecution in the first place, let alone the reason for all the secrecy that surrounded his case. Here is a man who has been found guilty of possessing a bomb-making manual, but whom two separate juries, who saw all the evidence, failed to convict of planning terror attacks.
It even emerged that Incedal had been in contact with a British extremist known as “Ahmed,” whom he had met on the border between Turkey and Syria. And yet the jury still cleared him. Why? We don’t know.
Amid all these questions we are faced with a government that has developed a worrying obsession with secrecy and the control of information – one that treats its laughingly inept security and intelligence services with mad devotion. The government appears to be in awe of the security services, and will do anything they ask without question.
We have seen this in the abject failure of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee to criticize myriad intelligence failures or the acknowledged illegal activities of the service. The Incedal trial represents yet another erosion of freedom of expression in the U.K., from the pervasive snooping of the security services into our emails, to the government attacks on the media, which has seen more journalists put on trial than terrorists in recent years.
The final bizarre twist in this sorry affair came when Mr. Justice Nicol rejected a post-trial application brought by media to make the case details public now that the trial was over and there no longer was a need for secrecy.
Predictably, Nicol handed down two judgments, one open, and one secret. His open judgment ruled that prosecutors could be dissuaded from bringing such a case in the future if reporting restrictions were lifted. Why? The reason was detailed in the accompanying secret judgment, which of course, we cannot read.
This is a pathetic way to defend the values of freedom and democracy. Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
It is sound advice, because the greatest threat to British values and freedoms just now is from hysteria, not terrorists.
Michael Glackin is a writer in the United Kingdom. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.