Pilot wins damages over terror claim but ordeal goes on

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The Independent Online

On 24 April last year Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian-born pilot, was cleared by a British court of training the 11 September hijackers.

It should have been the end of a terrifying ordeal that had begun with a visit in the middle of the night from members of the security services and continued with five months' detention at Belmarsh prison in south-east London.

But instead, Mr Raissi and his wife, a former customer service assistant with Air France at Heathrow, have found themselves "unemployable" and allegedly still facing intimidation from the British and American authorities.

"One of the worst things about our experience was the way the media printed every single lie that the FBI and Scotland Yard told them," said Mr Raissi.

But the Raissis settled their score with the media yesterday. In a settlement at the High Court in London, The Mail on Sunday agreed to pay Mr Raissi substantial damages for an article that accused him of being the "chief instructor" of the 11 September hijackers. The same article also falsely accused him of stealing the identity of a 74-year-old grandmother who had died four years earlier.

"These stories made my position in Belmarsh very difficult because the inmates and the guards read them and used them to racially abuse me and persecute me while I was there,'' he said.

Mr Raissi, 29, said that some of the worst tormentors were the prison guards. He added: "One told me they were going to 'feed you to the dogs', and when I was getting my food a guard asked the cook why he was serving someone who had killed 7,000 people in the terrorist attacks."

His solicitor, Louis Charalambous, believes that his client's ordeal is a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the "war against terrorism" since the attack on the twin towers.

"It is one of the first cases for compensation after the crackdown on Muslims in the aftermath of 11 September ... It will be a lesson to those in the media who think they can have a free-for-all when someone is accused of crimes for which there is no evidence.''

Mr Raissi had always dreamt of becoming a pilot. His father and uncle worked as ground crew in the aviation industry for many years but no one in his family had ever qualified as a pilot.

Like many Arab pilots before him, Mr Raissi paid to go to Phoenix, Arizona, to learn to fly bigger jets. There he qualified as a flight instructor and commercial pilot. At the same time he married his long-time French Catholic girlfriend, Sonia, 28, in Las Vegas.

"We decided that we really wanted to live in Europe and we moved to London so that I could get my European pilot's licence. I think England is beautiful and I love its traditions and the countryside. I'm a football fanatic, and I supported Manchester United until David Beckham moved to Real Madrid. Now I support Chelsea.''

On 21 September 2001, 10 days after the terrorist attacks on America, two reporters contacted Mr Raissi at his home in north London to ask him if he knew that he was on an FBI list of most-wanted terrorists. "I had no idea and told them if that was the case then I would go to the police to clear my name. I went back to watching television with my wife. It was only when I started talking about the incident with her that I started taking it seriously.'' Eight hours later the Raissis received a second visit. At 3am, officers from Scotland Yard and MI5, who had been instructed by their anti-terrorist counterparts in America, arrived at their ground-floor flat.

Mr Raissi said yesterday: "They didn't show me a warrant and went straight into the room where my wife was naked. I'm sure, like everything else they did, this was deliberate. It felt just like a kidnapping.

"They took us in separate cars to Paddington police station and didn't tell us what we had done or why they were arresting us.''

It was only later that Mr Raissi was told he was accused by the American authorities of training the pilots who flew planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon - a crime for which he faced the death penalty.

At his extradition hearings at Bow Street magistrates' court, the media repeated every detail of the allegations against him. His lawyers believe that more than 500 articles were published around the world - under the protection of qualified privilege which covers court reports that are fair and accurate.

But The Mail on Sunday decided to go further and publish other allegations that were not part of the American case, accusing him of stealing the identity of the 74-year-old woman. Lawyers for Mr Raissi believe that the newspaper's allegation was not protected by qualified privilege.

The Mail on Sunday's solicitor, Timothy Pinto, apologised to Mr Raissi yesterday for "any distress caused as a result of the publication of the article".

But for Mr Raissi this is only the beginning of the end of his ordeal. He has launched separate proceedings against the FBI and the US Justice Department for wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment in a claim estimated to be worth £13m. He intends to bring similar claims against Scotland Yard and the Crown Prosecution Service.

"They all knew what they were doing, they knew they didn't have the evidence, but they needed a scapegoat and my profile fitted,'' he said.

Earlier this year Mr Raissi attended the funeral of his uncle, who was one of the cabin crew who died when an Air Algerie Boeing 737 crashed shortly after take-off in March.

"When we got back to Heathrow I was given a 45-minute security interview. It's for this reason that I am still fighting to clear my name because I don't want to live in fear of intimidation for the rest of my life.''