Times of London

February 15, 2008
Judges condemn police lies after 9/11 attacks that ruined pilot's life
Sean O'Neill, Crime and Security Editor

Six years of fighting for justice left Lotfi Raissi an emotional and physical wreck and his marriage close to ruin. But yesterday, the Algerian pilot falsely accused of training the September 11 terrorists heard, finally, that he was “completely exonerated” of any part in the attacks on the twin towers.

As Mr Raissi pored over the Court of Appeal’s densely worded judgment, the lengths to which the authorities had bent the rules to detain him in the febrile days after September 11 became clear.

Three of Britain’s most senior judges condemned the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service for abusing the court process, presenting false allegations and not disclosing evidence.

But it was not until page 44, paragraph 154, line 17 that Mr Raissi’s eyes settled upon the words he had been praying for. The judges ruled that the charge that he was a terrorist and had trained the September 11 hijackers was one of which he should be “completely exonerated”. His only “crime” was to learn his skills at the same Florida flying school as two of the hijackers.

Mr Raissi’s eyes filled with tears and he “wept with relief”. Outside the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday he told The Times: “I’ve regained my dignity, it feels as if I can breathe and I am free again. The judges have said there were serious faults and an abuse of process in my case and that has restored my faith in British justice. I knew this day would come.”

The judges also ordered the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to reconsider the repeated refusal to compensate Mr Raissi for locking him in Belmarsh prison for six months and accusing him of the murders of thousands of people. Solicitors for Mr Raissi, 33, are expected to lodge a claim for compensation which — taking into account his loss of a career as an airline pilot, wrongful imprisonment and damage to his health — is expected to exceed £2 million.

But it will take more than money to repair Mr Raissi’s damaged life. His mental and physical health have deteriorated, his marriage to his French wife, Sonia, has suffered and his childhood dream of being a pilot is shattered for ever.

Lofti Raissi
Lotfi Raissi celebrates outside the High Court in Central London

After the September 11 attacks a frightened world waited, dreading the next atrocity. Across the Atlantic, the FBI, the CIA and every law enforcement agency were chasing leads on the background of the 19 terrorists who had hijacked the four airliners.

In Phoneix, Arizona, they came across a flight school called Sawyer Aviation where Hani Hanjour — who crashed an airliner into the Pentagon — had trained. The school was popular with Middle Eastern trainees and one of those at Sawyer at the same time as Hanjour was Mr Raissi.

He had, checks quickly established, left the US and was now living in Britain. On September 17, a letter from the legal attach?t the US Embassy in London was delivered to Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch.

“The FBI request that this matter be handled as expeditiously and discreetly as possible,” the letter said. The words “expeditiously” and “discreetly” were typed in bold.

Ten days later Scotland Yard executed its response to the American request. Armed officers smashed down the door of Mr Raissi’s flat in Colnbrook, Berkshire, not far from Heathrow, and arrested him and his wife at gunpoint. The media hailed the arrest in Britain of the first suspects in the global hunt for the men who planned the worst terrorist attacks ever seen. An extradition warrant was issued for Mr Raissi on a “holding charge” that he had failed to disclose a theft conviction on his US immigration application. But in the courts, British lawyers representing the US Government made much more serious allegations.

Mr Raissi, they said, was the “lead instructor” for the hijackers. The courts were told there was evidence that he falsified flight logs to hide the fact he trained Hanjour. Videotape had been found of Hanjour and Mr Raissi together. A notebook said to belong to Abu Doha, a major terrorist suspect, that had been found in London contained Mr Raissi’s phone number.

One by one, over the course of ten court hearings, Mr Raissi’s solicitor proved that the allegations and the evidence to support them were false, if not fabricated.

The accurate flight log was produced and the flying instructor who testified that Mr Raissi and Hanjour had indeed hired the same plane, but at different times. The man in the video was shown to be Mr Raissi’s cousin. It took time, but the address book was clearly shown not to have belonged to Abu Doha.

In February 2002, Mr Raissi was released from Belmarsh jail. But neither the British nor the American authorities were prepared to say they had been mistaken. He remained a suspected terrorist, unable to travel outside Britain except to Algeria.

The appeal court, under the presidency of the Master of the Rolls, said that responsibility for many of the mistakes in the Raissi case lay in Britain. In its judgment that the “primary responsibility for the falsity” over the notebook lay with the Met and the CPS. The judges also found that the false claim about the flight logs could be blamed on either carelessness or incompetence by Scotland Yard.

In a scathing passage of criticism, at the heart of their ruling, the judges said that the extradition proceedings had been abused as a means of keeping Mr Raissi in custody while inquiries were pursued in the US.

The judges said: “We consider that the way in which extradition proceedings were conducted in this country, with opposition to bail based on allegations which appear unfounded in evidence, amounted to an abuse of process.

It had taken the distance of six years and fundamental shifts in attitudes to the events of the War on Terror for a court to look with forensic detachment at what had been done to Mr Raissi.

But the appeal judges found that British police and prosecutors were directly responsible for the events that destroyed the young Algerian’s life. Justice, they told ministers, demanded that the Government compensate as a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

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