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Independent reviewer of terrorism legislation reports on "barely credible" Pope plot arrests

Independent reviewer of terrorism legislation reports on "barely credible" Pope plot arrests

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday May 17 2011

The Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, has reported on “Operation Gird,” the name given to the Metropolitan Police’s action against six Muslim men who were accused of “a plot to kill the Pope.”

Mr Anderson in the report released yesterday concluded that the “police acted responsibly and within the law in arresting the six men when they did” and that “the powers of search and seizure were appropriately used.” He goes on to add that he was “in no doubt that to be subjected to an armed arrest at their place of work was a shocking and disorientating experience” for the suspects and that “Whilst none of the men complained of any mistreatment during periods of detention, this too must have been a bewildering and unpleasant experience for them”.

He stated that “There is no reason to believe, with the benefit of hindsight, that any of the arrested men was involved in a plot to kill the Pope, or indeed that any such plot existed” and notes “at least three reasons for SO15 to react sceptically to the report:

a. The reported plot did not conform to any established pattern of intelligence.

b. It was barely credible that persons who were within a couple of days of executing an attack on the life of the Pope would have spoken openly of their intentions within the possible hearing of others.

c. The alleged conversation, unpleasant though it was reported to be, was at a far more general level than might have been expected from persons whose plans for an attack were already well advanced.”

On the role of the media in covering the arrests, the reviewer notes:

“There is no evidence that the police sought to exaggerate the significance of what had happened. Indeed, on the contrary, expectations were dampened from an early stage. The Friday press line from the Metropolitan Police stated “Initial searches have not uncovered any hazardous items”. By Friday afternoon, the BBC was reporting that “the arrests were carried out as a precaution”. Saturday’s Daily Mail was similarly low-key, emphasising that the arrests had been authorised after “only a short time to assess the credibility of the information”, that the response “reflected the nervousness” surrounding the Pope’s visit, and that that by Friday afternoon, “speculation was mounting that the suspects could be released without charge after the Pope leaves England tomorrow”.

“Such journalistic reticence was not universal. On Saturday, the Daily Mirror reported “The Pope is not the only VIP to be targeted by assassins dressed as street cleaners”, while the Daily Express led its front page with the banner headline: “MUSLIM PLOT TO KILL POPE”, stating “It is feared plotters with links to Al Qaeda planned ‘a double blow to the infidel’ by assassinating the head of the Roman Catholic church and slaughtering hundreds of pilgrims and well-wishers.” The Express reported “The alleged plot is believed to be the second planned assassination on the Pope recently” and cited a Vatican source as saying “Publicly the incident is being played down but privately arrests verge towards the serious side and came as a result of intelligence work”. The eventual release of the six men was reported in a single sentence on p.9 of the Monday edition.”

On the use of powers of arrests and detention under terrorism legislation on grounds of reasonable suspicion, Mr Anderson observed:

“Such exceptional powers however require exceptional vigilance in their exercise. The only lawful basis for a s41 arrest is a reasonable suspicion that the person arrested has committed a specified terrorist offence or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. Whatever the incidental benefits may be, it is not lawful to use the power purely out of caution, or purely for the purposes of gathering intelligence. Multiple precautionary arrests, made on no basis other than association with persons suspected of terrorism, will not be tolerated by the courts. The need for reasonable suspicion in relation to each individual under arrest must be kept firmly in mind both at the time of arrest and at the time of the regular reviews conducted by senior officers.

“I recommend that the s41 requirement for reasonable suspicion in relation to each person arrested be kept firmly in mind by all forces during future operations, as it was in this case, particularly in view of the security pressures that are likely to attend the forthcoming London Olympics.”

See also The Independent and the BBC.

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