(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times
LONDON -- In an embarrassment for the British government, all 12 men arrested during a high-profile counterterrorism sweep two weeks ago have been released, despite warnings at the time that a "very big" attack was imminent, authorities said Wednesday.
Officials are seeking to deport 11 of the men to their native Pakistan. But none of the former suspects has been charged with any wrongdoing, and authorities conceded that there was not enough evidence to continue holding them in custody.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had called the April 8 arrests across northwest England a necessary step to foil a "very big terrorist plot" that police had been following "for some time."
Rumors spread that those arrested were members of al-Qaida who planned to bomb a shopping center or nightclub in the city of Manchester. And because most of the men were Pakistani nationals in Britain on student visas, a media outcry ensued over the possibility that would-be terrorists successfully were avoiding scrutiny by border-control agents by posing as students.
But searches of the suspects' homes and of their computers apparently failed to produce any actionable evidence, and authorities scrambled Wednesday to answer accusations that the hurried arrests subjected the men to needless stress and humiliation.
"Our clients were arrested in a blaze of publicity and speculation," Mohammed Ayub, a lawyer for three of the men, said. "Their arrest and detention has been a very serious breach of their human rights."
Ayub added that his clients, all men in their 20s, "have no criminal history. They were here lawfully on student visas, and all were pursuing their studies and working part time. Our clients are neither extremists nor terrorists."
Officials did not elaborate on plans to seek deportation for 11 of the men, other than to cite grounds of national security.
The police sweep that resulted in the arrests was born of a major security blunder. On the morning of April 8, Bob Quick, then the head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard, was photographed carrying top-secret documents about an investigation into a suspected al-Qaida plot. The contents of the top sheet were clearly visible, and the photographs were soon posted on the Internet.
Because of the breach in security, police said they were forced to mount their sweep across northern England hours earlier than originally planned. Quick resigned the following day.
It is now an open question whether waiting a few more hours would have yielded any more evidence.
Peter Fahy, chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, defended the large-scale operation, which involved hundreds of officers. The raids took place in daylight, including one on a university in Liverpool that terrified students as armed police held a suspect, sprawled on the ground, outside the campus library.
"We had a duty to act . . . to protect the public and a subsequent duty to investigate what lay before us," Fahy said Wednesday. "We don't take these decisions lightly and only carry out this kind of action if it was wholly justified."