Toxic Lies

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'The Al Qaida plot to poison Britain'. That was how the Times reported the raid on a north London flat in January 2003 that had supposedly revealed a massive conspiracy to use the toxic substance ricin to terrorise the country.

But the most dangerous plot, revived during this election campaign, has been to attack our civil liberties.

Within two days of the raid, David Blunkett, John Reid and Tony Blair had all made horrified statements. The discovery highlighted the perils of weapons of mass destruction, intoned Blair, and showed that 'this danger is present and real'.

Except that it didn't. An initial test on the castor beans, cherry stones and apple pips used by Kamel Bourgass had provided a 'false positive', as subsequent tests showed. This was known on 7 January 2003, the day of the ministerial statements - but was not revealed to the public until the collapse of the case against Bourgass's alleged co-conspirators more than two years later. In the meantime the case had been used to support the case for war with Iraq, both by the British government and by Colin Powell in his now infamous speech to the UN Security Council.

The fact that the main 'evidence' for an Al Qaida link came from a man being held in Algeria, notorious for its use of torture, who even the chief prosecution barrister considered to be lying, has not prevented a wave of lurid reactions from the press and political establishment. The possibility that the men acquitted, and those who had the cases against them dropped, may actually be innocent has apparently not occurred to these supporters of summary 'justice'. Instead the head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, has electioneered for his namesake by calling for ID cards and Michael Howard has smeared all asylum seekers by his bigoted use of Bourgass's immigration status.

The victims of the last piece of anti-terrorism legislation, the recipients of control orders formerly detained illegally without charge or trial, were recently sent letters falsely linking them to the non-existent 'ricin plot'. But in the brave new world of the 'war on terror' the government can dismiss this as a 'clerical error' and continue their domestic incarceration indefinitely. Meanwhile Babar Ahmad, the British citizen whose crimes are apparently to have expressed opposition to imperialism, to have a father who once visited the Empire State Building, and to be a Muslim, faces extradition to the US on unspecified terror charges.

The government's war on civil liberties is not the careful response to an imminent danger that it claims, but a draconian and politically motivated project. It can only try to justify the discredited invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the ongoing US-led imperial crusade of which that is a part, with specious fear and scurrilous assertions. The Tories then shuffle even further right, to the point where Michael Howard's rhetoric is indistinguishable from that which earned Enoch Powell the sack from the Tory shadow cabinet in 1968.

At the general election candidates from Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party and some anti-war independents will challenge this right wing agenda. Only such principled opposition can begin to shift the terms of debate away from the politics of fear and express the huge movements against war and for trade justice.