‘I Lost My Career, My life And My Dignity’
By Jamie Doward, home affairs editor
Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled that Lotfi Raissi could claim compensation for his arrest and imprisonment after being wrongly accused of training 9/11 pilots. Here, in his first interview since the landmark decision, he tells of his prison hell, nervous collapse and the terrible toll his ordeal has had on his personal and professional life
17/02/08 “The Observer” — – Lotfi Raissi seemed destined to become one of the most reviled men in history. A pilot who had trained in the US before moving to England, he was the first person to be accused in connection with the 11 September attacks. He was alleged to be one of its chief ringleaders, teaching the 9/11 terrorists how to fly and crash planes into buildings. It’s hard to think of a more damaging accusation. Harder still when Raissi, whose chubby face and small, smiling eyes makes him seem younger than his 33 years, was wholly innocent.
But this did not stop him spending almost five months in Belmarsh high-security prison in south-east London after the American authorities told their British counterparts of Raissi’s ‘involvement’ in the worst terrorist attack in US history. ‘It was appalling,’ Raissi said yesterday as he tried to live a normal family life, meeting his brother for a family lunch followed by watching the Manchester United-Arsenal FA Cup tie. ‘I was guilty until I proved my innocence.’
Last week, three judges at the Court of Appeal ruled he should be allowed to renew his bid for compensation from the government, overturning a decision by the High Court last year. ‘I had faith in the judiciary system,’ Raissi said. ‘Thank God justice is what I got.’
However, it is clear that his wounds are still open. He says he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and his general health is not good. He has been seeing a doctor for the past two weeks because of high blood pressure. ‘I haven’t slept properly for the past seven years,’ he said.
To understand how damaging the accusations were against Raissi, it is necessary to understand his background. ‘My family back home in Algeria have been fighting terrorism for the past 15 years,’ he said. ‘My uncle is chief of an anti-terrorist branch. We abhor terrorism in any shape or form in our family. This is very damaging for us.’
The reference to ‘us’ is a telling one. Raissi is angry not for what happened to him but because of the shame it brought on his family. Their dignity, he says, has been taken away.
He recalls the day he was arrested by British police: 21 September 2001. He was dragged out of his house naked at three o’clock in the morning. There was banging, shouting, swarms of police. His wife, Sonia, and his brother, Mohammed, were also arrested but released four days later.
‘It was a kidnapping; they could have just sent me some questions and I would have been glad to answer all the questions at a police station,’ he said. ‘I didn’t even have the chance to read the warrant. There were guns everywhere.’
But his nightmare was only just beginning. He was taken to Paddington Green high security police station, which is used to house terrorist suspects. There was evidence – a great deal of evidence, the authorities implied – that would prove his guilt.
‘It was very confusing,’ Raissi said with a gentle understatement that is characteristic of how he views the tortuous events of the past six years. ‘They were saying I was involved in 9/11; they were blaming me for everything to do with 9/11. They said, “You prepared those hijackers”. I love football, I love dancing, I love going out – my life is so different from those who flew the planes. I just didn’t understand what they were talking about.’
It didn’t take long before the ‘evidence’ – false claims that he was linked to five of the hijackers – to drip through into the media. Even before he was arrested, journalists had mysteriously turned up outside his door asking questions.
From Paddington Green he was moved to Belmarsh, his nadir. The notorious London prison is used to house some of the most dangerous criminals in Britain. Raissi, with his gentle manners and humble persona, did not stand much of a chance in the febrile atmosphere that followed 9/11. Society wanted vengeance. The feeling permeated through the prison’s walls.
‘I feared for my life in court and inside prison,’ he said. ‘They moved me from the high security unit after three or four days and sent me to the normal wing, where I wasn’t safe. I suffered racism and discrimination. I got stabbed twice by other prisoners and no one investigated.’
Why was he stabbed? ‘Everyone had become a judge and a jury,’ he says with the sort of resignation which suggests he knows he will never be reconciled with what happened behind the prison walls. The psychological pressures of being accused of one of the most reviled crimes in history soon took their toll: ‘I had two nervous breakdowns. One in prison, one when I came out. My brother has been suffering, too.’
In bringing his claim for compensation, Raissi argues that he was arrested chiefly because he was Algerian, Muslim and Arab, an airline pilot – someone who effectively ticked the boxes of an identikit terrorist.
‘I was arrested because of my profile,’ he said. ‘Why didn’t they arrest the instructors who actually trained the terrorists?’
The Court of Appeal’s judgment on Raissi’s arrest, and the refusal to grant him bail, was damning. ‘Viewed objectively, it appears to us to be likely that the extradition proceedings were used for an ulterior purpose, namely to secure the appellant’s detention in custody in order to allow time for the US authorities to provide evidence of a terrorist offence,’ the three judges hearing his case concluded.
But the judges were most scathing about the role of the British authorities. ‘We consider that there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that the police and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] were responsible for serious defaults.’ It is difficult to imagine a more damning assessment.
The ruling also shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the way Britain and the United States trade intelligence and raised troubling questions about the two countries’ relationship when it comes to fighting terrorism. Why did Britain listen to the US? Why was it so eager to arrest Raissi, when even the American authorities had urged Britain only to make ‘discreet’ inquiries into his background.
The justification for Raissi’s arrest was at best spurious, even accepting – as the Court of Appeal did last week – that the weeks following 9/ 11 were turbulent ones.
Even the US, it seems, soon realised that Raissi was unlikely to be the man they were looking for. A couple of months after he was arrested, intelligence sources told the Washington Post that ‘we put him in the category of maybe or maybe not, leaning towards probably not. Our goal is to get him back here and talk to him to find out more.’ Raissi was still held for almost three further months after this statement was made.
What triggered the Americans’ original interest in him is equally bewildering. He had spent a period at a flight school in Phoenix, Arizona and when his student visa had expired he returned to Algeria before moving to London.
Travel records appeared to show that in June 2001 he was in Las Vegas when Ziad Jarrah – one of the hijackers of Flight 93, the plane that crashed after passengers stormed the cockpit – was also in the gambling city.
It was suggested that the FBI had discovered Raissi’s name in a rental vehicle hired by Salem al Hazmi, one of the five terrorists who hijacked Flight 77 which crashed into the Pentagon. It was also claimed that a video existed of Raissi celebrating with Hani Hanjour, another of the Flight 77 hijackers. Telephone records apparently corroborated claims he had called four of the hijackers.
But none of the claims was true and the US authorities and the CPS were unable to produce any evidence to back up their allegations.
‘It was media propaganda,’ Raissi said. ‘They said I was in a videotape with one of the hijackers that flew the aeroplane. The reality was the person in the video was my cousin and doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism.’
Ultimately, American officials were forced to make a provisional request for his extradition on the grounds that he had lied on his pilot’s licence by not revealing he had undergone knee surgery, an allegation that in itself was later proved false.
In April 2003 Raissi was formally released on all charges. Six months later he announced he was suing the FBI and the US Department of Justice for $10m for ruining his life. He was forced to drop the civil action after a recent change in the law barred individuals from suing sovereign states.
But it is the British, rather than the US authorities, who Raissi really wants to pursue through the courts. ‘Where is the sovereignty of the UK government? They have to come up with evidence. There was no evidence. They didn’t provide anything to the judge. That’s why there was no case to answer – it was a serious default by the police and the CPS. I’m shocked.’
His claim for compensation against the UK government was dismissed in the High Court last year. But he was determined to continue his legal fight, not for money, he says, but to clear his name.
‘People talk about the compensation. It’s nothing to do with it. I lost my life, I lost my career. There was a stage when I lost my dignity – that is unacceptable when we live in the civilised world. It’s a matter of principle. I want my life back; I want to clear my name and that of my family and to have a normal life.
‘I was 27 when I got arrested, now I’m 33. I was going in and out of court for seven years fighting this case – I didn’t have a life. If they don’t give me an apology it will be the same fight over the next three or four years.’
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has 14 days to decide whether she will fight Raissi’s case to go for compensation. ‘The government should fix this problem,’ he said, his voice rising slightly to express his bewilderment at the idea the authorities could countenance such an idea. ‘I am completely exonerated. The only thing I expect is a widely publicised apology. If they appeal the decision it will be a sham. They will be wasting taxpayers’ money.’
Raissi is not the only one to have suffered as a result of his ordeal. His wife lost her job at Air France. His brother’s wife lost her job at Heathrow, too. The strain has damaged his relationship with his wife. ‘Even with my marriage I struggle very much. Every part of my life I struggled with. It is an agony.’
Today, Raissi relies on the financial support of friends and family to get by. Initially when he came out of prison and had no work he refused all benefits. ‘I’m not working, I’m blacklisted from all airline jobs. I’m framed as a terrorist.’
Even now, despite being completely exonerated, he is banned from flying anywhere but Algeria because his American extradition warrant is still outstanding.
‘We hope Raissi’s complete exoneration will mean the US authorities will withdraw the warrant as a matter of urgency,’ said Jules Carey, his lawyer from Tuckers solicitors.
Carey also wants to see urgent action from the British authorities. ‘Last week’s judgment should not only cause the Home Secretary to review the use of
provisional extradition warrants but also prompt the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to overhaul their systems to avoid miscarriage of justice in the future,’ Carey said.
Given everything he has been through, it would seem natural if Raissi had become a bitter man, consumed with enmity towards those who locked him away without any credible evidence. But the truth is more complicated, even cathartic.
‘I learnt to forgive, I learnt patience,’ he said. ‘But it has been damaging to my life and my dignity – that is something I will never forgive.’
During the six years he fought to clear his name, he would be approached by strangers at the coffee shop near his home in Chiswick, west London.
‘They had heard about my case and would come up and say to me: “Hopefully this miscarriage of justice will be overturned.” I am very grateful for their support. My life in London is something I cherish very much. I love England.’ By way of emphasising his anglicisation he adds with evident pride: ‘I’m a big fan of Man United.’
But then Raissi says something else, something that should serve as much as a warning as an observation. ‘I always say Britain is a civilised country with beautiful people. I really cherish the customs, the way of life here. But after 9/11 things changed.’
2 June 2006 Police arrested 23-year-old Mohammed Abdul Kahar and 20-year-old Abul Koyair after raiding their home in Forest Gate, east London. Mr Kahar was shot in the shoulder during the raid. Both were later released without charge. On the brothers’ request the police issued an apology for the hurt they had caused, but insisted that, based on intelligence received, they had ‘no choice but to mount a robust operation, which required a fast armed response’.
26 July 2007 Five students, Irfan Raja, Awaab Iqbal, Aitzaz Zafar, Akbar Butt and Usman Malik, were jailed for downloading and sharing extremist literature. The convictions were quashed in the Court of Appeal last week, with the judge concluding there was no proof of terrorist intent.
21 January 2008 Six Pakistani men were arrested at Gatwick on suspicion of terrorist activity. They were later released after it emerged that they were all relatives or supporters of Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, a Musharraf lieutenant. A statement was swiftly released, apologising for the incident and ‘any personal distress that was caused to the individuals concerned’.
Compiled by Holly Bentley