Times : Students held in 'terror' raids freed without charge

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Students held in 'terror' raids freed without charge

Sean O’Neill, Crime and Security Editor, Steve Bird, and Hannah Fletcher | April 22, 2009

Nine men detained in a security operation intended to thwart what the Prime Minister said was “a very big terrorist plot” were released without charge last night.

The men, Pakistani citizens who were in Britain on student visas, were handed by police into the custody of immigration authorities and now face deportation on national security grounds. Aged between 22 and 38, they had been detained for 13 out of a possible 28 days but were released because there was no evidence connecting them to terrorist activity.

Two of the 12 men arrested during Operation Pathway on April 8 are still being questioned under anti-terrorism legislation. An 18-year-old student was transferred to the custody of the UK Border Agency after three days in detention.

Mohammed Ayub, a lawyer for three of the men, called for an independent inquiry into Operation Pathway and said their deportation orders would be challenged. “Our clients have no criminal history, they were here lawfully on student visas and all were pursuing their studies and working part-time,” he said. “They are neither extremists nor terrorists. Their arrest and detention has been a serious breach of their human rights. As a minimum they are entitled to an unreserved apology.”

The investigation into alleged al-Qaeda activity in the North West involved 14 properties in Manchester, Liverpool and Clitheroe, Lancashire, being searched by specialist teams.

The arrests were brought forward by 12 hours after Bob Quick, Scotland Yard’s head of counter-terrorism, accidentally disclosed details of the raids to Downing Street photographers while on his way to brief Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary.

Mr Quick, Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations, resigned, admitting that he had compromised a high-level security operation. Ms Smith told the House of Commons this week that the error had not damaged the operation and that the only impact had been that the raids had been brought forward “by a matter of hours”.

However, The Times understands that even before Mr Quick quit there were furious disagreements between Scotland Yard, which is supposed to have national responsibility for counter-terrorism, the North West Counter-Terrorism Unit, led by Greater Manchester Police, and MI5.

Security sources said that the arrests were premature and complained that police had panicked after picking up intelligence “chatter” that appeared to discuss timings and targets. Some of the suspects were allegedly under surveillance while photographing and filming at Manchester shopping centres and a nightclub.

It was hoped that the arrests and searches would produce evidence of bomb-making activity or components.

At one point a block of flats in Liverpool was evacuated but no explosive material was found. Attention later turned to the forensic examination of the suspects’ computers, but sources say that nothing has been found which can incriminate the men.

The Times reported last week that British officials had talks with Pakistani officials and were seeking assurances that none of the suspects would suffer torture if he was deported to Pakistan. A spokesman for Greater Manchester Police said that searches were continuing at one property in the city.

In the aftermath of the arrests the Prime Minister complained that Pakistan was not doing enough to help Britain to fight terrorism. Pakistan claimed that Britain did not carry out enough checks on young men entering the country, and the spotlight fell on the potential exploitation of the student visa programme by terrorist groups.

Ministers admitted that the student visa scheme was a weak link in British border security. The families of several of the men have protested that their sons were innocent, hard-working students.

The nine men have the right to contest deportation through the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. It can overturn decisions by the Home Secretary to deport people on national security grounds.