A street cleaner arrested on suspicion of plotting against the Pope last year has told the BBC he is still traumatised by his ordeal.
Last September, when the Pope was visiting London, Sami, who has asked the BBC not to use his full name for fear of reprisals, was one of six men arrested under anti-terrorism laws. The 26-year-old from Algeria was the youngest.
The men, all street cleaners for Westminster Council, were detained after a tip-off to police. All were released without charge less than two days later – police said they posed “no credible threat” to the Pope.
Sami is now considering legal action against the police for false imprisonment. He accepts the police had a duty to protect the public from any potential threat but says the affair has had a profound affect on him.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme through an interpreter, Sami said that when police first detained him he had no lawyer or interpreter and did not really understand what was happening.
“The first interview – yes, it was me alone,” he said. “I was there and was being subjected to all sorts of questioning. At one stage the person interrogating me started saying ‘If anything happens to the Pope, anything at all, then you will be held responsible.’ Until now I am still traumatised by what I was subjected to.
“I felt my entire world crumbling around me. And I felt this is the end of my life. I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that I started thinking about Guantanamo Bay – you know, being transported over there.”
Earlier this year, BBC Radio 4’s Face the Facts programme reported on concerns that many negative newspaper stories about Muslims turn out to be untrue. Sami says he is shocked at the way one newspaper in particular distorted the facts.
The day after the men were arrested, under the headline “Muslim plot to kill the pope“, the front page of the Daily Express accused them of being “Islamic terrorists… with links to al-Qaeda”, plotting a “double blow to the infidel” by assassinating the head of the Roman Catholic Church and slaughtering hundreds of pilgrims and well wishers.
The Press Complaints Commission received numerous complaints about the paper’s coverage. But it is powerless to act because the Express group has withdrawn from the PCC. So Sami would have to go directly to the newspaper itself – and he is not confident of success.
“Of course I would like to make a complaint and the end goal for me would be like they alleged this against us – and me personally – on the front page: I would like them to reprint another front page saying ‘We got it wrong and we apologise’. I don’t think they will be fair.”
A report is due out in the next few weeks over whether the Metropolitan Police were justified in arresting the men. It is being carried out by the new independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC.
The Daily Express and Scotland Yard declined to comment.