A British appeals court ruled Thursday that an upcoming terrorism trial can be held mostly in secret, despite objections from civil-liberties groups and news organizations that argued for public access and from prosecutors who wanted the entire proceeding kept confidential.
Britain’s Court of Appeals said the case was an exceptional one, and agreed with government lawyers that, if the trial was open to the public, national security would be endangered. Exactly how was not explained.
The bulk of the trial of two men suspected of plotting a terrorist attack can therefore take place behind closed doors, the court ruled. The trial is scheduled to start next Monday.
But in a partial rebuke to prosecutors, the judges said that the names of the defendants could be released and that a portion of the proceedings could be attended by a small group of journalists. The court expressed “grave concern” over the adverse effects that holding a trial in secret and keeping defendants anonymous would have on Britain’s judicial system.
“Open justice is both a fundamental principle of the common law and a means of ensuring public confidence in our legal system; exceptions are rare and must be justified on the facts,” the court said. “Any such exceptions must be necessary and proportionate.”
The ruling reversed a lower court’s decision in favor of government lawyers who had demanded that nearly everything about the case be kept confidential. Prosecutors said they would sooner drop the case than open the trial to the public, so as not to compromise national security.
But news organizations, including the Guardian newspaper, appealed the decision, arguing that an entirely secret trial would be unheard of in Britain and would set a bad precedent.
Isabella Sankey, policy director for the civil-rights group Liberty, said the appellate judges were right to affirm the principle of open justice but that the conditions they imposed Thursday were still too restrictive.
“Faced with a blacked-out trial, we now have a few vital chinks of light,” Sankey said in a statement. “But their wholesale deference to vague and secret ministerial ‘national security’ claims is worrying. Shutting the door on the core of a criminal trial is a dangerous departure from our democratic tradition.”
The prosecution said it would abide by the appeals court’s ruling.
The two suspects, Erol Incedal and Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, were arrested last year. Incedal faces charges of preparing an act of terrorism and collecting “useful” terrorist information. Rarmoul-Bouhadjar is accused of collecting terrorist information and possessing false identity papers.
The appellate ruling said that the swearing in of the trial jury, the presiding judge’s preliminary remarks, part of the prosecution’s opening argument and announcement of the verdicts and of any sentences would have to take place in open court.
A small number of reporters will be allowed to attend most of the daily proceedings but will have to surrender their notes at the end of each day.