A British man wrongly charged with training the pilots in the Sept. 11 attacks and imprisoned for six months can claim damages from the British government, a British court ruled Thursday. The decision has prompted criticism of Britain's terrorist extradition policies with the United States.
Britain's Court of Appeal ruled, writes the Scotsman, that the government should reexamine its decision to deny compensation to Lotfi Raissi, in light of the damage it did to Mr. Raissi's career and reputation by arresting him and publicly accusing him of aiding the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Raissi, who attended a flight school in Arizona at the same time as men involved in the attacks, was imprisoned by the British government for four-and-a-half months on terrorism-related charges. The government released him when it could find no evidence to support its accusations.
Lord Justice Hooper, giving judgment today, said: "The public labelling of the appellant as a terrorist by the authorities in this country, and particularly by the [Crown Prosecution Service, the government's criminal prosecutors in England and Wales], over a period of many months has had and continues to have, so it is said, a devastating effect on his life and on his health.
"He considers that, unless he receives a public acknowledgement that he is not a terrorist, he will be unable to get his life back together again."
The judge said the appeal court, which also included the Master of the Rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke and Lady Justice Smith, considered that there was a "considerable body of evidence" to suggest that the police and the CPS were responsible for what the scheme describes as "serious defaults".
The New York Times writes that while the court reserved most of its criticism for British prosecutors, it also condemned the United States for its role in Raissi's arrest. US authorities believed that Raissi was a terrorist and requested he be arrested by British law enforcement.
Mr. Raissi was picked up by the police at his home near Heathrow Airport 10 days after the [September 11] attacks at the request of the United States, the court noted. During the seven days he was questioned by the British police, an F.B.I. agent observed "from a remote location via a television link," the court said.
When the seven-day holding period was up, the United States sought to extradite Mr. Raissi after hastily filing what the court called "trivial" charges: failure to note on his pilot's license application that he had had knee surgery, and that, at the age of 19, he had been arrested for stealing a briefcase at Heathrow and given a false name at the time.
The British court said the United States had abused the extradition process, using it as "a device to secure" Mr. Raissi's "presence in the U.S. for the purpose of investigating 9/11 rather than for the purpose of putting him on trial for nondisclosure offenses."
The Times of London writes that, nonetheless, the court found that primary responsibility for Raissi's treatment lay with Britain, particularly in the case presented by British prosecutors at the behest of the United States.
Mr Raissi, they said, was the "lead instructor" for the hijackers. The courts were told there was evidence that he falsified flight logs to hide the fact he trained Hanjour. Videotape had been found of Hanjour and Mr Raissi together. A notebook said to belong to Abu Doha, a major terrorist suspect, that had been found in London contained Mr Raissi's phone number.
One by one, over the course of ten court hearings, Mr Raissi's solicitor proved that the allegations and the evidence to support them were false, if not fabricated. ...
In February 2002, Mr Raissi was released from Belmarsh jail. But neither the British nor the American authorities were prepared to say they had been mistaken. He remained a suspected terrorist, unable to travel outside Britain except to Algeria.
The court added that it considered "the way in which extradition proceedings were conducted in this country, with opposition to bail based on allegations which appear unfounded in evidence, amounted to an abuse of process."
"I am very glad. I always had faith in British justice. Surely I can expect to hear from the home secretary with the long-awaited apology very soon."
He said his wrongful arrest had left him blacklisted as a pilot and unable to work. "They destroyed my life, they destroyed my career. For this I will never, ever forgive them," he said.
Raissi says his compensatory claim may reach millions of pounds. The Ministry of Justice said it is considering appealing the court's decision.
The BBC adds that Raissi's treatment has prompted calls to reexamine the extradition treaty enacted in 2003 between Britain and the US. Raissi's lawyer, among others, noted that if the extradition treaty had been in force at the time of Raissi's arrest in 2001, he could have been extradited without evidence and might have faced "execution or life imprisonment."
James Welch, legal director of the human rights organisation Liberty, said that Mr Raissi was "lucky" to be arrested before the new laws came into effect.
He said: "If he had been arrested now in exactly the same circumstances then he would simply have been whisked off to the United States.
"Nobody is denying that there needs to be a proper extradition procedure. But within that procedure there has to be scope for courts in this country to see how strong the evidence is against the person they are seeking to extradite."
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne also lambasted the treaty, noting that it only allowed expedited extradition out of Britain to the US, and not the other way. "...This Government has risked serious miscarriages of justice by entering into an inherently unbalanced treaty with the United States, which seriously undermines the rights of British citizens," he said, and called for a review of the agreement.
The British Home Office said it has no plans to review the treaty.