Aircraft bomb plot suspects won't face trial before 2008, prosecutors say
The Associated Press | September 4, 2006
LONDON Suspects alleged to have plotted to bomb U.S.-bound airliners will not be brought to trial before 2008 as officials sift through evidence from across the world, prosecutors said Monday -- a delay that will keep key details of the case secret for almost two years.
Though normally tightlipped British detectives have broken with tradition to reveal some evidence, their brief statements have done little to illuminate an initial warning from London's Metropolitan Police that it had foiled a plan to commit murder on an unimaginable scale.
Lawyers and intelligence experts agree that delays in bringing terror cases to trial are inevitable given the complexity of the evidence and global scale of inquiries — but say withholding information for prolonged periods could dent the public's trust in the police and government.
The repercussions of keeping a suspect in high-security custody only to have them later found innocent could also be grave, lawyers warn.
Eight men accused of conspiracy to commit murder and preparing to commit terrorism over the alleged aircraft plot appeared in court Monday and were told by a prosecutor they are unlikely to be face trial until 2008.
Prosecutor Colin Gibbs told London's Central Criminal Court there would be no trial before January 2008, and it would most likely be around Easter — which falls on March 23 that year.
Tanvir Hussain, 25; Umar Islam, 28; Arafat Khan, 25; Ahmed Abdullah Ali, 25; Ibrahim Savant, 25; Waheed Zaman, 22; Assad Ali Sarwar, 26; and Adam Khatib, 19, all appeared by video link from prison.
None of the eight — all British Muslims — applied for bail during the brief hearing. They were ordered to be returned to custody pending a hearing on Sept. 18.
Gibbs told the court that their trial would be delayed as detailed studies of items recovered in police raids — including alleged explosive materials, computers, phone records and documents — could take several months to complete.
Compiling details of a suspect's travel, phone records or connections with other known terrorist suspects is a painstaking task and often relies on cooperation with authorities in multiple countries, said Paul Wilkinson, director of Scotland's Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
"Investigations are often dependent on how well equipped authorities in a particular country are to assist — in some cases it might take months to get the information they are seeking, in others it might be never," Wilkinson said.
"It is not unusual for investigators to take a long time to prepare their case, the important thing is they establish with meticulous care whether the suspect is guilty of the alleged crime."
Wilkinson acknowledged long delays before a trial can fuel speculation about a case, but said since the London transport bombings last July the British public had become more understanding of the work needed to bring suspects to court.
Peter Clarke, London's chief counterterrorism officer, has disclosed that police seized hydrogen peroxide, bomb-making components and six martyrdom videos during searches at 70 locations in connection with the alleged airliner plot.
It was an unusual decision by Britain's usually guarded law enforcement authorities, but Clarke said he believed there was a duty to recognize a public need for information, despite the country's strict laws on disclosing case details before a trial takes place.
"That was an important step and it helps the public realize that this case is not an invention of the police and government as they await the trial," Wilkinson said
Clarke had complained earlier this year that British laws had prevented him for three years from explaining to the public why officers had carried out a high-profile raid on a London mosque.
Details were disclosed in February, when radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri was jailed for seven years for inciting followers to kill non-Muslims.
Civil liberties groups acknowledge terrorism cases can involve lengthy evidence gathering, but are concerned for suspects who may eventually be proven innocent after spending years detained in high-security prison cells.
"If the suspects are found guilty, the time spent held in custody is discounted from their sentence — but that's no consolation if they are found innocent," said lawyer James Welch, head of legal affairs at civil rights campaign group Liberty.
"It is down to judges to protect the interests of the accused and to make sure prosecutors do not delay proceedings for any longer than strictly necessary."
Prosecutors rounded up 25 people in raids over the alleged airliner plot on Aug. 9-10 and have so far charged 15 people with offenses. Five have been released and investigators have until Wednesday to question five others.