It has emerged that Scotland Yard detectives allowed an alleged war criminal to escape arrest, through fear of sparking a diplomatic incident. In September 2005 Major General Doran Almog of the Israeli Army landed at Heathrow airport for a visit to Jewish communities in Manchester and Solihull. Police were ordered to detain the general upon his arrival in the UK so that he could be questioned over the allegations that he ordered the destruction of more than 50 Palestinian homes within the Gaza Strip in 2002. The action was brought against the general by Palestinian human rights campaigners.
Following a tip-off about his impending arrest, Almog refused to leave the plane willingly and remained on board the El Al flight from Israel. Leaked documents this week show how the officers at the scene decided against boarding the plane through fear of an armed confrontation. There was a srong possibility that armed air marshals were travelling with the general – although this is unconfirmed. The police officers also claimed to be unaware of their legal position with regard to whether they were actually allowed to board the plane.
Police logs seen by the British press show that the officer in charge, Superintendant John MacBrayne was concerned that ‘El AL flights carried armed air marshals, which raised issues around public safety… there was also no intelligence as to whether Mr Almog would have been travelling with personal security as befitted his status, armed or otherwise’. MacBrane, as an experienced anti-terrorist officer (he recently flew to Pakistan to investigate the killing of Benazir Bhutto) would of course be very aware of the security arrangements that a high-ranking Israeli Army officer would have in place. Almog may have been travelling with not one or two armed marshals, but due to his notoriety maybe four or five.
Following the high-profile shootings of teenagers, gangsters, police officers, jewellery shop owners and even an eleven-year-old boy in recent months, it must be asked why airport officials were absolutely clueless as to how many guns were on board a passenger plane landing at a British airport. There were, according to MacBrane’s analysis, possibly up to five men on board who could have been carrying powerful guns – guns that were powerful enough to threaten the lives of the police officers and force them to back down from the situation.
The emergence of the police log provides further revelations as to why the officers allowed Almog to escape. The threat of an international diplomatic incident was apparently too real. In the log, Macbrayne noted that the Foreign Office had attempted to apply a reserved pressure on the Superintendant. They argued that there was no case for a prosecution, with there being little evidence available to mount one. However, Macbrayne felt compelled to act on this and advise the government that Hickman Rose, the law firm representing the Palestinians, had in fact produced satisfactory evidence to the contrary.
The log also shows how the officers were reluctant to board the plane without the carrier’s permission and said that they were unsure of their legal position in this situation. It is written that Macbrayne could not obtain the confirmation he needed to execute the arrest warrant in the two hours that the plane stood on the airport tarmac. However, it is apparently an uncomplicated question. According to the legal framework, once an airplane lands on British soil it is subject to British law. It’s as simple as that.
So why did it take so long for this question to be answered? If it is as straightforward as it appears, then why was an answer not able to be found before the general’s plane turned around and fled? Indeed, we might also question why the plane was allowed to leave at all. At the very least the aircraft could have been prevented from departing, and negotiators could have then become involved. This was reiterated by the former head of the flying squad, John O’Connor who said that ‘all the police needed to do was stop the plane from taking off’.
Another question remains. Who tipped off the general about his imminent arrest? The Independent Police Complaints Commission has concluded that there was no proof that any officers had leaked the information. The Israeli Embassy had been made aware of the impending arrest, but how is something that will remain unknown.
Remarkably, following an angry response from the Israel Government the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has apologised to Israel. The Israeli government was unhappy with the way in which one of its war heroes was made to feel so unwelcome in the UK. Unwelcome? Perhaps the 59 families whose homes were bulldozed under Olmags command were made to feel a little unwelcome in their own country.
In view of the growing international apprehensiveness towards Israel’s policies, the question has to be asked: Would a Hezbollah commander have been treated in the same way? As pointed out in a statement from Hickman Rose, one line sums up the remarkable decisions made – ‘[the police logs] reveal an extraordinary assumption that armed Israelis might engage British police on British soil as they try to make an arrest under a lawful warrant issued by a British judge.’
Disturbingly, the UK government response to this episode has not been to assure citizens that this was an isolated incident, and that arrest warrants will in future be properly executed no matter who they are for. Instead, the government is now considering amending UK law so that individual victims of war crimes will be not be able to apply for arrest warrants of suspects. Citizens who live under Israeli Military Rule are unprotected in criminal law and rely on the prosecution of war criminals abroad. If the government go through with such amendments, it will be made much easier for war crimes suspects to evade prosecution in the UK. Indeed these developments, if carried through, will call into question the UK’s commitment in tracking and prosecuting war criminals and making those who commit crimes against humanity accountable for their actions.
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This post was written by Chris Bath