Tuesday 23 November 2010

Lawrence Archer Shows Why Juries Matter

Like most jurors, Lawrence Archer was a typical, not especially political member of the public, a BT engineer who was called for jury service at the Old Bailey in 2005 and became the foreman of the jury during the infamous "ricin plot" trial. What made yesterday evening's discussion in Stratford, about his book on the trial and its aftermath, so completely fascinating is how his experience was revelatory - and how it has changed him into a campaigner against the injustices of the 'war on terror' here in Britain.

In 2003, anti-terrorism police raided a north London flat after a tip-off from the Algerian government, which was almost certainly based on evidence extracted using torture. They had alleged that there was an Al-Qaeda plot to attack the London underground using the poison ricin. Five men were arrested and Tony Blair said the threat of international terrorism was "present and real and with us now and its potential is huge". In the incredibly paranoid and hysterical period after 2001, the press inevitably went berserk, with The Sun reporting the discovery of a "factory of death" (an sensationalist claim that was recycled following the police raids in 2006 of my neighbours in Forest Gate). The Daily Mirror front page (above), which was reprinted and displayed last night, had a map of the UK emblazoned with a skull and cross bones and the headline: "It's Here".

But after the jury had spent six months hearing evidence, they had heard that no ricin had ever been found, that biological weapons experts at the government's Porton Down Laboratory knew this within two days and that there had never been a sophisticated plot, only loose associations between the five men. After taking a then-record 17 days to reach a decision, they acquitted four of the defendants and found a fifth guilty of the Victorian-era offence of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, a charge dug up specially for the trial.

After the trial was over, however, the jurors saw that the media coverage of the trial bore little relation to the evidence they had heard. Journalists, who had faced a media black out during the trial and hardly attended the court proceedings, preferred to rely on briefings from the police and security services. The story they told was a pack of lies. Britain's most politicised police officer, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, went further: he used the failure to convict to demand legislation for “acts preparatory to terrorism”, because 'terrorists' operate using “very loose-knit conspiracies.” The then home secretary, Charles Clarke, duly obliged.

Remarkably, a number of the jurors decided not to simply walk away but to investigate further, meeting the defence lawyer Gareth Peirce, and the some of the defendants themselves. Lawrence Archer was one of those who spoke out when several of the men were rearrested and threatened with deportation. He has given evidence at the secretive Special Immigration Appeals Commission hearings and expressed his horror that the 'ricin' plot was used by Colin Powell as alleged proof that Saddam Hussein had been secretly arming terrorist groups in the approach to the war in Iraq. Last night he described his scepticism whenever he hears reports about 'intelligence', calling it "guesswork based on fourth hand sources, some extracted under torture."

A jury trial not only prevented an injustice - it also led some jurors, people like Archer, to take a greater interest in the way the state operates and to continue to believe in a 'duty of care' beyond the courtroom. None of this would have happened without the jury system and the involvement of citizens in the criminal justice system. It's the reason why defending the principle of trial-by-jury is so important and explains why the security establishment, if it could have its way, would favour its abolition in alleged terrorism cases.

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