Friday, 23 April 2010

Lotfi Raissi - a lucky man

I'm pleased to see that Lotfi Raissi, the innocent Algerian who was mistaken for a terrorist by the US authorities and spent five months in Belmarsh despite the complete lack of evidence against him, is finally to be compensated. The false allegation that he had something to do with 9/11 destroyed his life and rendered him virtually unemployable, yet the government that colluded in his arrest has still offered him no apology. After years of foot-dragging by the authorities, Raissi resorted to the law, claiming wrongful arrest. He finally won his case last month - and now, after a few more weeks' prevarication, the Ministry of Justice have conceded his entitlement, which will now be independently assessed.

In an interesting phrase, the Court of Appeal described Raissi as was the victim of the "heightened emotional atmosphere" in the aftermath of September 11 2001. I think that means that the US and British authorities were so desperate to find someone to arrest they didn't particularly care whether or not there was any evidence. Indeed, Raissi remained incarcerated in Belmarsh for several weeks even after a judge expressed concern at the lack of evidence. Lawyers for the US authorities asked for time to find some - and even when they couldn't continued to oppose his release. They continued to press for his extradition for more than a year - long after it became apparent to the dimmest legal or investigative intellect that the whole matter was, at most, a case of mistaken identity. They pursued him for months in the full knowledge of his innocence, and even opposed the final quashing of the extradition request.

It was truly appalling. Yet in a sense Lotfi Raissi was extremely lucky. Had the 2003 Extradition Act been in force, then neither the lack of any credible (or even incredible) evidence, nor even Raissi's ability to demonstrate his complete innocence would have been of any help to him. The UK courts would have been unable to halt his extradition - in which case he would probably be languishing today in a high-security American jail cell while the authorities attempted to find a fig-leaf to cover their embarrassment. His case should have served as a terrible warning of the way in which New Labour legislation has left the extradition system wide-open to abuse - both with regards to the unequal treaty with the United States and the similar, but more "equal", European Arrest Warrant.

The practice of extraditing people to foreign jurisdictions without even the most minimal safeguard - proof that there is at least some case to answer - is scandalous. Yet it defended on grounds of efficiency, and whenever valid questions are raised about the principle, or particular shocking instances adduced, we are told that without such casual arrangements terrorists and murderers would be to more difficult to extradite. Or at least that it would take longer. Perhaps that's true. But it would be a price well worth paying.