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Page last updated at 13:03 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

The inquest that may never be

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Azelle Rodney
The vote could speed up the inquest of Azelle Rodney, opposition peers say

A very small amendment to the government's major Counter Terrorism Bill has turned into a very big deal for one family - and gets to the heart of a battle over secret evidence and the state.

If your relative was killed by a police marksmen, you'd expect to be able to find out why it happened.

And for the past two months, the family and supporters of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes have sat at the inquest revealing how officers came to believe the electrician was a suicide bomber.

But Mr de Menezes was not the only such death of 2005.

Another young man was killed by a Metropolitan Police firearms officer three months earlier, as part of a major drugs investigation.

But Azelle Rodney's inquest has yet to be heard because of the rules over secret intelligence - and what the family say is the political football of counter terrorism laws.

On Monday they are pinning their hopes on a last-ditch Parliamentary attempt to force the government to allow Mr Rodney's inquest to be heard.

"I just feel totally let down because our attempts to get answers have turned into such a long and drawn out process," says his mother, Susan Alexander.

"We're in exactly the same position that we were in when he was killed. Nothing has changed. I'm just really, really disappointed because my family has been undermined."

Armed operation

On the evening of 30 April 2005, undercover police teams were following a car in Edgware in north London. Mr Rodney was one of three men inside and was sitting in the back seat.

We don't have a death penalty in this country, it's in the public interest for people to know what the police did and what happened
Susan Alexander
Firearms officers launched a "hard stop" - police jargon for an arrest led by CO19 armed police, some of the most experienced officers in the country, because of the possibility of someone getting shot or harmed.

The hired VW Golf was surrounded by police vehicles using a special manoeuvre designed to minimise the chances of a criminal fleeing the scene and to reduce the risk to the public.

As drinkers sat at a nearby pub, armed officers disabled the Golf with special rounds. Mr Rodney was still in the back of the car as officers approached. He was shot six times by one of the officers. He had wounds to the head, neck and back. Earlier that day he had spent a leisurely hour having his hair cut.

The two other men in the car, Wesley Lovell and Frank Graham, were later jailed for drugs and firearms offences. The suspects had been watched for at least two days as part of a major investigation.

But Mr Rodney's connection to the other men remains unclear. The trial heard there had been three guns in the car. Lovell claimed he had allowed the dead man to use his flat to produce crack cocaine to cancel out a drugs debt.

Mr Rodney, of course, was not in court to defend himself against the allegation. Mrs Alexander says her son had no criminal record or contact with the police and barely knew the two men from whom he had accepted a lift.

And it's at this point that the family believe the wheels of justice stopped turning.

Redacted documents

In England and Wales a coroner and a jury investigate when someone had died at the hands of the state. Most of these are sad but simple cases of deaths in custody, people accidently hit by emergency vehicles and, more recently, servicemen and women who were fighting overseas.

Coroners' papers
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But the documents in Azelle Rodney's case were redacted - parts of the story had been blacked out.

These sections appear to relate to "intercept" material - secret intelligence procedures such as phone-taps - and the Independent Police Complaints Commission told the coroner the missing chunks were relevant to the circumstances.

Andrew Walker, the coroner, has ruled there can be no inquest for Azelle Rodney until he can see the redacted information.

But intercept material is never aired in court because the government says exposing the information to public glare would reveal how it is gathered - and that would compromise future operations.

And so Mrs Alexander says she understands "two-thirds" of what happened on 30 April 2005. But the final third - the reasons why the police suspected her son - remain secret.

Campaigners say the government must allow the inquest to go ahead because of the ages-old principle that a community must learn from sudden deaths, particularly those involving the state.

Parliamentarians have tried to introduce a measure specifically designed to allow the Rodney case to proceed. It would permit a senior judge to read secret material and show it to a jury and family - but not the public.

The government responded by whipping MPs through the Commons to defeat the measure, promising to legislate later.

But it's widely expected that ministers will propose secret inquests, which exclude families. And it's this very measure that they were forced to drop from the Counter Terrorism Bill earlier this year after clear signs that MPs and peers would oppose inquests behind closed doors.

So peers are again trying to reintroduce an Azelle Rodney measure on Monday. If that fails then Mrs Alexander says she may be forced to go to the European Court - a lengthy and expensive business.

Ms Alexander's solicitor, Daniel Machover, says failure to hold an inquest would be a breach of her right under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights to have a prompt investigation into her son's death.

But Home office minister Vernon Coaker recently told Parliament that allowing juries to hear intercept material was unacceptable because criminals and terrorists would learn how they are being watched.

"It would create the potential for disclosure of all intercept material, regardless of sensitivity, to a wide number of people, thereby seriously undermining the ability to ensure the protection from public disclosure of sensitive intercept material and the capabilities and techniques by which it was obtained," he said.

"Such disclosure could undermine our ability to prevent future attacks or affect our ability to curb the activities of dangerous people."

Reports relating to Azelle Rodney's death have naturally focused on the inescapable fact that he was in a car with three guns and two men later convicted of serious offences.

But Mrs Alexander says only a public forum of an inquest will allow the public to understand why he died - and to see material that she believes will prove the police made a mistake.

"My son was not a terrorist. He was a British citizen and he had the same rights as anyone else," she says.

"We don't have a death penalty in this country. It's in the public interest for people to know what the police did and what happened."

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