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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April, 2005, 19:26 GMT 20:26 UK
Comment: Questions unanswered

By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

An al-Qaeda suspect has been jailed for plotting to spread ricin and other poisons on the UK's streets. Anti-terror chief Peter Clarke has said a "real and deadly threat" has been averted.

Has the so-called "war on terror" claimed a major success with the conviction of Kamel Bourgass at the Old Bailey?

Porton Down laboratories
Material found in the Wood Green flat was tested at Porton Down

Or is this case more notable for the way in which criminal investigations are shamelessly exploited for political purposes by governments in the UK and United States, whether to justify the invasion of Iraq or the introduction of new legislation to restrict civil liberties?

A key unexplained issue is why the Porton Down laboratory, which analysed the material and equipment seized from a flat in Wood Green, said that a residue of ricin had been found when it had not.

This became the basis of a statement by the head of specialist operations for the Metropolitan Police, Sir David Veness, and well-publicised comments by the government's deputy chief medical officer and the Department of Health.

Yet, within two days of the raid on the flat, it appears that the leader of the Biological Weapon Identification Group at Porton Down, Martin Pearce, had concluded that ricin was not present.

'A mystery'

Indeed, no traces of biological or chemical weapons were detected. That finding was confirmed during the trial when Porton Down scientists gave evidence.

This raises the question of how much influence was played by Mohammed Meguerba who, under interrogation in Algeria, was adamant that two pots of ricin had been manufactured at the Wood Green premises?

Yet, despite the existence of recipes and probable ingredients, the two pots were never found.

Why? "It's a mystery," said a prominent anti-terrorist officer.

Some will wonder whether Meguerba was tortured while in custody. A Metropolitan Police officer who saw him in court in Algeria said he seemed "in fine health".

Nevertheless, speculation will continue on that point.

'No triumph'

It was the aim of the Old Bailey prosecution to link the so-called "UK poison cell" to al-Qaeda via various documents, including the "Manual of Afghan Jihad", which had been seized in Manchester in April 2000.

But it became clear that the recipe for ricin in the manual and other documents discovered in the Afghan capital, Kabul, bore little in common with the one being used by Bourgass in London.

Thus, despite his conviction for conspiracy to commit a public nuisance, the more damning charge of conspiracy to murder was not proved.

Moreover, the acquittal of four other defendants and the dropping of a planned trial against four more will be exploited by those who regard this case, despite all the publicity it generated, as something less than an unalloyed triumph for the British authorities.



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