Monday, September 26, 2005

Police blunder after 9/11 'destroyed pilot's career'

SCOTLAND YARD responded to an FBI request for a discreet background check on an alleged terrorism suspect by smashing down his door at 3am and arresting him at gunpoint.

Documents obtained by The Times shed new light on the bungled investigation into Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian pilot who was wrongly accused of training the September 11 hijackers.

Mr Raissi, 31, was the first person in the world to be arrested in connection with the attacks of September 11, 2001. He spent five months in prison before a judge threw out the “tenuous” case against him and ordered his release.

The Government has refused to compensate him for wrongful arrest and imprisonment and claims that the British authorities were acting properly on an American request. But US papers concerning the case clearly show that America did not ask for the arrest of Mr Raissi and suggest that British police overreacted.

The FBI asked for Scotland Yard’s assistance in tracing Mr Raissi on September 17, 2001. A formal request from the legal attaché at the US Embassy in London was delivered to a detective chief superintendent at Scotland Yard. It stated: “The FBI request that this matter be handled as expeditiously and discreetly as possible”. The words “expeditiously” and “discreetly” are typed in bold.

Towards the end of the six-page letter, the American official writes: “The FBI requests all available information on Raissi. The FBI requests that New Scotland Yard discreetly conduct a thorough background investigation on Raissi and confirm his presence in the UK. The FBI requests that Raissi NOT BE alerted to the US Government’s interests at this time.”

The word “discreetly” is printed in bold and underlined, and the words “not be” are in bold, block capitals and underlined.

In the early hours of September 21, armed police raided Mr Raissi’s flat in Colnbrook, Berkshire. A gun was put to his head and an arrest warrant thrust into his face. He was led naked to a police car.

Mr Raissi’s wife, Sonia, a French Roman Catholic, was also arrested, as was his brother Mohammed, who lived in Hounslow, West London. All three were taken to Paddington Green high-security police station. Mr Raissi’s wife and brother were released without charge after four days.

The pilot had been in police custody for a week before the American authorities, after discussions with the UK, issued an international arrest warrant.

Formal terrorism charges were never laid against Mr Raissi but at extradition hearings Crown Prosecution Service lawyers alleged that he had taught four of the 9/11 hijackers how to fly and had associated with known terrorist suspects.

After five months as a category A prisoner in Belmarsh prison, southeast London, Mr Raissi was released when a judge said that the allegations against him were completely unsubstantiated.

A video that the FBI claimed showed Mr Raissi with Hani Hanjour, one of the hijackers, was revealed in court to be footage of him with his cousin.

Mr Raissi is still fighting for a public apology from the British Government. His case has won the backing of Algerianministers, who are in negotiations with Britain over a “memorandum of understanding” for the deportation of terrorist suspects. Algiers wants the resolution of Mr Raissi’s case to be part of any agreement.

Mr Raissi, who has had relatives killed by Islamist terrorists in Algeria, said that the documents obtained by The Times would strengthen his legal claim.

He said: “I have been branded a terrorist and can no longer get a job in the aviation industry. I want a full, unreserved apology and compensation for the destruction of my career and all the harm that has been done to my family.”

Mr Raissi is seeking a judicial review of the Home Secretary’s refusal of his compensation claim. In one letter to his lawyers, the Home Office admitted that the decision “will seem harsh”. But officials added: “The Home Secretary would not support the contention that the UK authorities committed any serious default in their handling of your client’s case.”


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