Sunday, December 14, 2008

Open verdict? My arse

De Menezes: clearly the jury didn't believe the police. But, nevermind the lies, most of the press keep telling us not to forget how tense the atmosphere was on that day.

As the inquest over the killing (sorry, the open verdict) of Jean Charles de Menezes came to an end, someone pointed out that a similar incident in Brazil wouldn't have been granted a similar degree of discussion, let alone a legal enquiry. It's almost as if the de Menezes family should be grateful for the privilege of dealing with that wonderful sanctuary of legal rights that is Britain.

That may be the case. And in fact, Britain most certainly allowed reports, debates and inquests, all quite thorough and all quite costly (£8 million). Except that it takes one little detail to turn it into a surreal farce. And, a Brazilian may be quite right to point out, the kind only a Brit can tolerate with such a passive shrug. Because just before the final verdict, the jury was effectively gagged from expressing their full findings. The coroner in charge of the proceedings, Sir Michael Wright, ordered that the one verdict the police were dreading, 'unlawful killing', be struck out.

Excuse the light-hearted comparison, but it's like being 3-0 up with five minutes to go and the referee tells you that, forget the three goals, the only possible score to be allowed at the end of the match is either a 0-0 draw or victory for the opponents.

Hence the Kafkaesque 'open verdict' expression. Good Lord, you can even picture it: "Jury, have you reached a verdict?" "Yes, Your Honour". "What is your verdict?" "Open verdict your honour". "We found the accused guilty of everything, therefore it's an… open verdict".

And in fact the inquest did reveal a spectacular display of incompetence and foul play on the part of the police. And the jury took note. There were disturbing accounts of how, in the words of Gareth Peirce, the solicitor representing the de Menezes family, "officers ostensibly trained to operate a military policy in effectively a war situation […] didn't even know the basic terminology to use [and] seemed incapable of setting up a central command system that obtained information and gave it". Not to mention that the evidence given by the police as regards the few seconds leading up to the shooting was contradicted by each and every single witness. The jury didn’t believe a single one of the officers. Which is why the de Menezes family lawyer is currently considering perjury action against the Met.

Yet wide sections of the country's press seemed disturbingly unconcerned. At best, they hold on to a couple of routine formulas that sidestep the whole de Menezes affair. 'Don't forget the tension on that day' and 'the police had to decide within seconds'. In the Times, David Aaronovitch goes for the strawman tactic. He writes: "Sometimes it seems to need restatement that the police did not set out that morning looking to kill an innocent young man". Then, as he reminds us of the "confused circumstances" surrounding the killing, he quotes press reports from 22 July 2005 about "'an Asian guy' in a heavy coat […] running on to the train", as well as "bomb belt and wires".

Except that Aaronovitch doesn't tell you that those press statements were based on the information passed on by Scotland Yard. The day after de Menezes' death, a Met's official statement was still portraying a false version of the facts. "His clothing and behaviour added to [the surveillance officers'] suspicions". Scotland Yard initially claimed he wore a bulky jacket and jumped the barrier when police identified themselves and ordered him to stop. Still the day after the shooting Ian Blair was spreading the fable that de Menezes "challenged police and refused to obey orders before he was shot"
They knew they were talking rubbish, but they had no problem telling the press. This is what should be at the centre of the de Menezes' case. Because nobody doubts the pressure the police were under, nobody forgets the charged atmosphere of those days. But what's it got to do with lying?

Aaronovitch doesn't tell you that, as it emerged from the inquest, "one surveillance team member had altered his log to say that he had not positively identified the subject as the bomber, though his original entry indicated the opposite". Quibbles. The people in charge of defending the nation at the height of a security alert feel free to release false information and alter evidence and that's ok, isn't it?

"Don't treat the police as criminal", says Maria Dejevsky in the Independent. Not criminals, but the unexplained "failure (of anyone) to apprehend the suspect before he reached the station" is surely a magnificent display of ineptitude. As she concedes herself, "Challenging a suspected terrorist in a relatively quiet street is one thing; risking a bomb blast inside a Tube station at rush hour is quite another".


Anonymous said...

The establishment are closing ranks when it comes to defending the cops. And it is a bloody disgrace. An innocent man gets shot in the head and we are expected to let the cops and the rest of 'em off the hook? And Aaronovitch accuses the jury of being 'harsh'.... No, they saw through the cops lies and believed the ordinary passengers on that tube.

On a more general issue the number of people who die at the hands of the state rarely get justice.

I mean, the jury at the inquest into the death of Harry Stanley passed an unlawful killing verdict and cos the establishment didn't like it it was over turned so much for justice!

Johnny T said...

Fantasticpiece by Conrad Black in the Independent on Sunday (today 14Dec). I quote:

"The first clue about what went wrong, and indeed to the kind of organisation we are dealing with, comes not from the behaviour of the police firearms specialists on the day, but in their subsequent behaviour in giving evidence. Both the officers who fired at Mr de Menezes maintained under oath that they shouted a warning before opening fire. The jury explicitly rejected this version of events and preferred to believe the 17 witnesses in the carriage, none of whom can remember the police shouting a warning. What sort of system or chain of command allows its officers to present an unbelievable version of events to a court? We cannot pretend that the officers concerned were not counselled in presenting their version of events to the court. They had three years to work out what they were going to say – and they went for a lie, and a stupid one at that.
This is what disturbs most – not the incompetence, but the glimpse into the strange moral universe of Scotland Yard. Not only do those at the Yard seem to believe that the rules most of us live by, such as telling the truth in court, do not apply to them, but their moral outlook appears out of kilter. How else can one interpret the remark by Cressida Dick, in overall charge that day? "If you ask me whether I think anybody did anything wrong or unreasonable on the operation, I don't think they did."


Madam Miaow said...

Har! Priceless, Johnny.

Linda said...

Some heads definately needed to roll for this official whitewash