Friday, 22 February 2013

Terrorist convictions were in a closed London court?

Shadowy: clip from police car dashboard
video footage showing the arrest
of the terror plot suspects.
In what appears to have been a closed session of Woolwich Crown Court, near London, three British men have been convicted of plotting terrorist attacks in the UK, the Guardian reports. In the story we hear from four people: the judge in court, addressing the three men as he makes a summation of the allegations against them, a person from the Crown Prosecution Service, the assistant commissioner of West Midlands police, and the head of special crime and counter-terrorism in the Crown Prosecution Service. In the case of the judge it is clear that the journalist is actually inside the courtroom. But in the cases of the other three people interviewed for the story it appears that conversations were held at another place. There is no mention of a defense attorney or of a jury. Woolwich Crown Court "has been designed as a high security courtroom and so now is the preferred venue for [terrorist] trials", according to Wikipedia. The court was used for the trials of the 7/7 bombers and for the people involved in the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot.

Information online shows that crown courts have a place for a jury to sit to listen to proceedings. But in the case under discussion it is evident from reading the story linked to above that the journalist herself was not inside the courtroom during the major part of trial proceedings, and was brought in at the end of them to hear the judge's summations. Interviews she held with the Crown Prosecution Service and with the police assistant commissioner took place elsewhere, probably somewhere inside the court precincts.

Another story on the Guardian's website discusses in some detail the motivations of MI5 in bringing the three men to court. There are no names of MI5 operatives included in the story, it is always "a source" or "one source" that serves for quote attributions, making it clear that the journalist spoke directly with MI5 operatives during the time she was collecting material for use in her story.

Sentencing of the three terror plotters, who "denied all the charges against them", has not yet occurred. In addition to the three primary convicts, there are other trials pending, which presumably will also take place in closed court with no members of the public or from the media witnessing proceedings. "A total of 11 men and one woman have been charged in connection with the plot." Four men who the three primary plotters recruited to their cause "have pleaded guilty to preparation of terrorist acts" and "Two other members of the cell ... have pleaded guilty to their role in the plot".

If you are interested in learning what MI5 thought was adequate justification for bringing the men to trial then you can read the second story linked to above, which deals with the evidence and with the surveillance program run by MI5 once it had decided that the men were worth watching. To me, the evidence is pretty flimsy and the three men who have now been convicted appear to have been clumsy and amateurish in their conduct. Nevertheless, it seems clear that they, and others who have been charged in connection with the plot, travelled to Pakistan and visited training facilities operated by al Qaeda in order to receive terrorist training.

But a closed court - if that is indeed what we are dealing with here - appears to me to make a mockery of centuries of British legal precedent, and more resembles the hated Star Chamber of Renaissance London than a place where justice can truly be served in a modern liberal democracy. It is crucial for defendants, evidence and witnesses to be placed under public scrutiny, otherwise justice cannot be seen to be done. And that is a key aspect of the system of justice in the world we live in today. Prosecutions such as this (the "Birmingham three"?) must take place in public or else you risk undermining the credibility of the entire justice system, from the police, to MI5, to the crown courts themselves. It is important to remember that the audience for judgements like this is not restricted to readers of the Guardian. The whole world is watching.

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