Secret Government Documents Will Not Be Made Public In Al Qaeda Linked Terror Attack Investigation

Inquests Into The Deaths of 7 British Residents Working In Algeria Continue In London


Dave Grimshaw, Press Officer | 0114 274 4397

Sensitive information relating to a terrorist attack in Algeria which was passed to the British government, has been considered by the Assistant Coroner overseeing the Inquests into the deaths of seven UK residents who were taken hostage and killed by a branch of Al-Qaeda during an attack at the In Amenas gas plant. However, the information was deemed so sensitive it will not be made public so as to protect national security.

During the course of the Inquests, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (The Right Honourable Philip Hammond MP) signed a Public Interest Immunity (“PII”) certificate dated 15 December 2014, which asserted that disclosure of certain sensitive information to the public, “…would create a real risk of very serious harm”.

HM Assistant Coroner HHJ Nicolas Hilliard QC replaced HM Senior Coroner Penelope Schofield at a late stage in the Inquests because his security clearance meant that he could see this highly sensitive evidence. In an open ruling, considered at the  continuing inquest hearings at the Royal Courts of Justice in London today, HHJ Hilliard QC confirmed that having considered the evidence including submissions from the British government, he believed that the Public Interest Immunity Certificate, which prevents the  government from disclosing the sensitive evidence, was justified and should be upheld.

A PII issue only arises where there is evidence of a real risk of damage to the public interest in disclosing the sensitive information held. In his open ruling, the Assistant Coroner said that he had “closely scrutinised the PII Certificate given the inability of the victims’ families to know what was being considered”. He said that he had also conducted a balancing exercise between the damage to the public interest which would be caused by disclosure of the sensitive information, and the damage to the administration of justice caused by not disclosing it.  In reaching his decision not to disclose the sensitive information to the public, the Assistant Coroner said that “disclosure of the materials would create a real risk of very serious harm”.

Expert lawyers at Irwin Mitchell, who represent the family of a London-based senior executive of BP who was killed in the four-day terrorist attack, say that the decision not to release the evidence publicly is ‘understandable’ given the real risk of serious harm posed if this sensitive information were to be publicly disclosed, and they are re-assured by the Assistant Coroner’s confirmation that he can now reach a conclusion in the long-running Inquest proceedings based upon the evidence that he has considered.

The Assistant Coroner did, however, reveal that:

  • The information which was received by the British government before the attack was not dealt with speedily, and there was no good reason for the delay;
  • Even without this sensitive information, BP was already well aware of the general danger of kidnap, and the Assistant Coroner is now very familiar with the evidence which has been given, which includes evidence about the risks already known to BP prior to the attack.

During the siege at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, which took place between 16 and 19 January 2013, 800 hostages were taken and 40 innocent men from ten different countries were killed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.

Over the course of the seven weeks of Inquest hearings so far, the Assistant Coroner has heard evidence from over 65 witnesses from across the globe, including family members of the deceased men, hostages, security and intelligence experts, as well as senior executives from BP and Norway’s ‘Statoil’, both of whom co-own the plant as part of a joint venture with Algeria’s ‘Sonatrach’. 

Specialist International Personal Injury lawyers at Irwin Mitchell represent the family of Mr Carlos Estrada Valencia, a Senior Vice President at BP, who was tragically killed in the attack.  Mr Estrada Valencia, a Colombian national who had worked for BP for 18 years before he was killed, had never been to the gas plant previously.  He had arrived in Algeria on 14 January 2013.

Lawyers at Irwin Mitchell say that evidence heard at the Inquests raise serious concerns about the adequacy of the security measures in place at the plant at the time of the attack. They hope lessons can be learned to help reduce the risk of future similar incidents occurring in Algeria and elsewhere across the globe.

Clive Garner, head of International Personal Injury and Group Actions at Irwin Mitchell who represent the family of Mr Estrada Valencia, said:

Expert Opinion
The on-going Inquests into the deaths of seven UK residents at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria is clearly of great importance to all of the families who lost their loved ones there. The Inquests also include examination of matters of significant international importance and it is crucial that the Assistant Coroner is given every opportunity to consider all the evidence available to him when coming to his conclusion.

“The need for a Public Interest Immunity Certificate, as contended for by the Foreign Secretary and lawyers on behalf of the government, has been carefully considered by the Assistant Coroner having heard submissions by all interested parties, including lawyers representing the families of those who were killed. In reaching his decision to uphold the PII certificate, it is clear that HHJ Hilliard QC has, on the one hand, weighed the damage to the administration of justice, and in particular the investigation into the cause of the deaths of these seven men, which would result from upholding the certificate.

“On the other hand, he has had to consider the damage to the public interest which would be caused by disclosure of the evidence. The procedures adopted by the Assistant Coroner in his consideration of this matter have been robust and indicate the gravity of the matters concerned. While all of the relevant evidence in the possession of the government will not be disclosed publicly, in all the circumstances we and our clients understand and respect the ruling that has been made.

“The Inquests have been extremely traumatic for all of those involved in this appalling attack, and for the families and friends of the victims who lost their lives during it. Everyone wants to understand precisely what happened on those fateful four days in January 2013 and during the period leading up to the attack at what was one of Algeria’s largest and most important gas plants.

“We have raised serious concerns about the adequacy of the security measures in place at the plant at the time of the attack and we hope that one of the outcomes of the Inquests will be that the families who have been so deeply affected by the events at In Amenas will have a better understanding about exactly what happened. We hope that this will give them a degree of closure. It is also vital that any potential lessons are learned to improve safety for those working abroad and to reduce the risk of similar incidents occurring in future.

“The fight for justice for the families of those who so tragically lost their lives at In Amenas will continue after the Inquests have been concluded. But it is hoped that the lasting legacy of the Inquests will be that those taken hostage in the attack, including Mr Estrada Valencia, are remembered for their bravery and dignity throughout what must have been a most terrifying ordeal, and that concerns raised about security at the plant are not ignored.”
Clive Garner, Partner

During the Inquests, tributes were paid to the 40 hostages killed during the attack, and several surviving hostages spoke of their admiration for the seven British residents who were killed in the ordeal, recounting in particular how Mr Estrada Valencia shared messages of hope with his fellow hostages and sought to raise the spirits of those around him, despite having a Semtex explosive device strung around his neck by his captors. 

Claudia Gaviria, the widow of Mr Estrada Valencia, said: “Not a day goes by that we don’t think of Carlos. We have waited so long for answers about what he endured over those few days in Algeria.  We are especially grateful to the dedicated members of the Metropolitan Police’s SO15 Counter-Terrorism team, who have taken over 450 witness statements from across the globe, and also to the Assistant Coroner and his team for taking the time to review all of the evidence presented.

“It has been so hard to listen to the witnesses in court and to find out that there were so many concerns with the security at the site before the attack.  We just want to know that this evidence is going to change things for the future and will stop anything similar from happening again.”

The Assistant Coroner is expected to deliver his conclusion as the Inquests are completed on 26 January 2015, ten days after the second anniversary of the attack.

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