Matthew Norman: Another police fiasco to divert attention from the last one

What is unforgivable is that the Pakistanis haven't been released but held for deporting

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Seldom since September 11 2001 has there been a better day than Wednesday for the burial of bad news. With the Chancellor borrowing from compatriot Private Frazer, an undertaker himself, to tell us we're all doomed (I paraphrase the Budget very slightly), the announcement that a huge meteor was on course to disrupt the London Marathon on Sunday would have passed by barely noticed.

If Jacqui Smith had coughed to claiming £120,000 for being impregnated with a foetus cloned from Osama bin Laden in a Torinese clinic, it would have been lost. Had it emerged that Gordon Brown has signed up for a sex change, followed by extensive cosmetic surgery and the loss of his legs below the knee, in the cause of becoming a Susan Boyle tribute act (the only way, according to leading pundits, he could win an election), it might have made a two-paragraph brief on page 27.

Consider yourselves forgiven, then, if the trumpets of the Four Horsemen of the Fiscal Apocalypse drowned out the noise of a less sensational news cadaver being lowered into the ground with half the ceremony lavished on Eleanor Rigby... the very bad, if unstartling, news that the British police have contrived another colossal fiasco.

As it proudly takes its place on the honours board of terrorist-related policing calamity, alongside the "Ricin plot" sans Ricin, the "airline bomb plot" involving no airliners, the "London Underground cyanide plot" devoid of cyanide and aimed at no Tube trains, and the shooting of an innocent Muslim in east London technically known as Forest GateGate, please give a warm, Independent readers' welcome to the "Easter bomb plot" with nothing to do with Easter and not the hint of an explosive.

The special appeal about this one is its exquisite symmetry. The arrests of a dozen Muslim men, 11 Pakistanis here on student visas and a lone British national, were rushed through on 9 April in the wake of former Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick's little faux pas with that top secret folder as he strode manfully towards Number 10.

Given that all 12 have now been released without charge, we ask ourselves why Mr Quick was in Downing Street at all. And the odds-on 2-9 favourite, we answer, is that the Government and Scotland Yard were desperate to flam up a "police triumph" story to divert outrage from the possible manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protest.

And a triumph, for a while at least, it was. Gordon was thrilled to bits by Operation Pathway, lauding the police for foiling what he assured us, with neo-Blunkettian contempt for the basic precepts of natural justice, was a "very big terrorist plot". So big, it transpires, that the police and security services, these brethren defenders of life and liberty now engaged in a ferocious game of buck-passing, had amassed zero evidence. Houses, cars and computers were searched, and not a carrot found.

Apparently there'd been a tip-off from our spooks in Pakistan, which is nice, although ever since MI6 failed to predict the collapse of Soviet Communism, common sense suggests their intelligence be handled with giant tongs. One person's common sense is another's venal cynicism, of course, and the security world's faith in its own competence does credit to its trusting nature, if only towards itself.

Now although we cannot be certain that these men were harmless, their release after less than a fortnight, when the law now allows suspects to be held for 28 days, entitles us to make the presumption; just as we may assume that they were arrested, despite being under 24-hour surveillance that had unearthed no imminent "bomb plot", to remove Mr Tomlinson's death from the front pages; and just as we must suspect that the timing of their release, on the eve of the Budget, was more than coincidence.

The creation of a fresh policing catastrophe in the attempt to divert public fury from a previous one is, as I said, gorgeously symmetrical. If royalprotection officers had shot Prince Philip to deflect attention from their failure to keep Michael Fagan out of the Queen's bedroom, that would have done the trick too, but again you'd have wondered whether the game was worth the candle.

Yet however inured we've become to ministers and a frighteningly politicised police force crying wolf (you will recall the pre-election ringing of Heathrow with tanks for no other apparent reason than electoral gain), we cannot become blasé about the blithe vindictiveness that underscores this case.

Bending over backwards to be charitable, one might read the "Easter bomb plot" arrests as nothing more sinister than a loss of nerve... the blind terror, in a risk-averse world, that waiting to collect some evidence could lead to loss of life. It's very easy to be smug, sat behind a computer screen, about the nervous nelliedom of those responsible for keeping us safe. It isn't so easy, in truth, to imagine how men being followed round the clock, their phones and emails perpetually bugged, could hurriedly activate the plot to detonate so much as a stink bomb.

Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has promised a "snapshot review" of Operation Pathway, and if he sees fit to publish it perhaps we will learn more about the mechanics of this cock-up. Whatever his findings, however, and without excusing the evidently political nature of the timing or ignoring the damage all this premature incarceration does to relations with a justifiably livid and suspicious Muslim community, one does understand the general temptation to err on the side of caution.

What is utterly unforgivable is that the 11 Pakistanis have been released into not freedom but the unlovely arms of the immigration service, which will seek to deport them on the familiar catch that they are, in some nebulous manner of which they have no legal right to be informed so that they might defend themselves against the charge, a threat to national security. Having tainted them with the McBridean smear that they are would-be killers with his "very big terrorist plot" gibberish, in other words, Gordon Brown means to use their deportation as no-smoke-without-fire cover for a grave mistake in which he was complicit.

If an apology and compensation for their wrongful detention is an outlandish expectation from a government whose paramount concern remains the opinion of right wing tabloids, is it too much to ask that these chaps be spared the persecution they can, having been condemned as terrorists by a British PM, count on back in Pakistan?

Apparently it is. For far too long, idiots like myself have given Gordon Brown the benefit of every doubt, ever qualifying attacks on his abysmal leadership, relentless machine politician bullying and abundant cowardice in the line of fire with the rider that at least he, unlike his predecessor, is at heart a well-intentioned man. The sacrifice of these innocents to spare his blushes makes this a very good day to bury that credulous misjudgment in a concrete-lined coffin, never to be disinterred.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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