KHARTOUM (Reuters) - One minute, Omer Almagboul says, he and his fellow Sudanese flatmate were lazing at their student flat in England, recovering from a big night out. The next, their lives changed for ever.
Dozens of armed police stormed in, forced them to kneel on the floor facing the wall and interrogated them as terrorism suspects in the seaside town of Brighton, south of London.
Almagboul was caught up with his friend Shadi Abdelgadir in a police net trawling for people who helped the men who tried to blow up London buses and trains on July 21, 2005 — two weeks after suicide bombers in the city killed over 50 people.
Their Sudanese friend, Mohamed Kabashi, had brought one of the would-be bombers, Hussein Osman, to their flat one night, the first time they had met him. He stayed one night then left.
“We thought he was just another visitor — we showed the usual hospitality.” said Almagboul, now 23 and sitting in his family’s home in Khartoum.
“I couldn’t believe he (Kabashi) would do that to us. He played us like fools.”
After an ordeal lasting nearly three years, a British jury cleared the two last month of all charges including failing to disclose information under the Terrorism Act and aiding and abetting a criminal. Kabashi was convicted.
Almagboul, a thin man who was friendly and hospitable, anxiously tapped his cigarette on the table as he recalled in his first media interview the emotional turmoil and extreme paranoia he lived with.
The trial was a farce, but the jury was good, he said — leaving him with anger towards Britain’s government which he says is trying to introduce a police state, but admiration for its people.
“The British people don’t know. The public lost millions of taxpayers’ money and for what? Politics?” said the former electrical engineering student.
“These terrorism trials aren’t about justice, they’re about manipulating the law to guarantee convictions and make up numbers.”
He said he and his friend agreed to be witnesses for the prosecution to help convict one of the would-be bombers, having been promised they would not face charges — but were tricked.
They spent six months in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison alongside some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals, then got bail but had to wear a tracking tag, stay in for 12-1/2 hours of each day and had to report twice a day to a police station.
Even then, police would bang on Almagboul’s door at all hours of the night or telephone to check he was in.
“It was unnecessary harassment,” he said. “I didn’t sleep properly for 2-1/2 years — I was a walking zombie.”
In Belmarsh, he was afraid to openly practice his religion, Islam. Once as he and other Muslim prisoners tried to pray in the yard, guards shouted and pushed them and dragged them back to their cells.
“You were so paranoid — in that way the terrorists won, in the effect they had on the British public,” he said. “If you’re a Muslim, you’re a terrorist now.”
Almagboul was close to breaking point but felt he had to be strong for his family as a tragic accident during his time in Britain left him their only son.
An army truck exploded while moving rockets and missiles in Khartoum in April 2007. A missile hit his home, in the room next to where he was now sitting for the interview, killing his older brother Gasim.
“It hurt so much that they wouldn’t let me see him, go to his funeral. I was devastated.”
He said British prosecutors feigned ignorance at every e-mail or fax from defense lawyers requesting access to evidence.
June 11 was the day of the verdict at London’s Old Bailey central criminal court.
After three co-defendants were found guilty of similar charges of helping al Qaeda-inspired would-be suicide bombers, Almagboul said he couldn’t breathe until he finally heard a verdict of not guilty for him and his friend Shadi Abdelgadir.
“I wanted to say kudos to the British public, the jury, because I’m not sure I could have ... seen through all the rubbish in that courtroom,” he said.
Tears of joy and relief ran down both their faces, but the nightmare wasn’t over.
Moments after the judge left the court, the only two defendants acquitted found themselves in handcuffs again.
Their student visas, which had run out, would not be renewed and they were taken to a detention centre where they were locked up in a cell for 23 hours a day awaiting deportation.
“To think you’re free and then to be detained again — it was mind boggling!” he said.
Almagboul cannot now believe he and his friend are home.
“I used to dream of waking up at home but would still wake up in prison so it’s hard to believe this isn’t still a dream,” he said.
His father Nagmeldin Almagboul is bitter at the whole process. The treasurer of the Sudanese-British friendship society in Khartoum, he has now resigned.
His son — who plans now to run his late brother’s air conditioning repair business — had a bitter message for the would-be bombers.
“The people that do this, they say they are protecting Muslims, but that’s a lie ... it’s destroyed my life, my entire family’s life.”
edited by Richard Meares