Interview: Cerie Bullivant

Cerie Bullivant breached his control order 47 times
Cerie Bullivant breached his control order 47 times

Cerie Bullivant, an innocent man, discovered what living with a control order is actually like the hard way. He is now out to get them axed for good.

By Alex Stevenson

The government doesn't need a conviction to place terror suspects under control orders. Campaigners say it's a fundamental usurpation of our civil liberties and the right to trial. One of the most vocal of their opponents is Cerie Bullivant. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because you've read about him before.

The first time politics.co.uk had mentioned the man now sitting opposite me was once before, in May 2007, when then home secretary John Reid had bowed to civil liberties concerns and announced a review of control orders.


The review, as the story explained, came as "Scotland Yard took the unprecedented step of releasing the identities of three missing terror suspects under a control order". One of the three was Cerie Bullivant.

"Despite there being insufficient evidence to charge the men with a criminal offence, they were issued with control orders under the Terrorism Act and supposed to report regularly to a police station," we reported at the time.

"Opponents have long criticised control orders for creating a legal limbo which fails to fully satisfy human rights or security concerns... in a written statement to the Commons Mr Reid said the three men did not pose a threat to the public and the control orders had been imposed to prevent them travelling abroad."

Bullivant, who was 24 then, certainly did not pose a threat to the public. The following February Mr Justice Collins at the high court exonerated him, saying MI5 had shown "no reasonable suspicion" when they decided he was a security risk. Anti-terror powers had been used to severely limit the liberty of an innocent man. His wife had left him, he said after his release, and his life had been destroyed.

Looking back now, it's clear his views of the world - and Britain - had been fundamentally changed by the experience. "Call me naive, but I grew up believing Britain was the good guy," he tells me.

"We brought democracy to the world... it's been a rude awakening to see that actually that version of history we grew up with has a few more pages to it than I originally thought."

Bullivant's own troubled history began in 2006 as he attempted to board a flight to Syria. He was questioned for hours. He missed his flight and had his DNA and fingerprints taken, before being allowed to go. A week later he returned to retrieve his passport, but was warned not to attempt to travel anywhere politically questionable.

He thought no-one could object to Bangladesh, where he planned to visit an orphanage. A week before he was due to travel MI5 phoned up his friend and told him not to travel. Two days later, he was put on a control order.

Bullivant talks about this period of his life in calm, measured tones, but it's clear that at the time he was a broken man.

"You know you have so many conditions you have to fulfil, and you know if you don't you're liable for up to five years in prison," he explains.

"Your brain is constantly going over this. You don't know why it's been done to you, so you're constantly trying to second-guess why it's happened to you in the first place. You end up in this half-paranoid, depressed, catatonic state, constantly panicking and worrying. The conditions affect everybody you live with."

When the house was searched two or three times a week, it affected all those living there. The rule prohibiting mobile phones applied to all those there - visitors or residents. Internet and even computers were not allowed, so "children can't do their coursework".

"It put a huge amount of stress on my mum - she was being punished even though she had never done anything wrong," he adds.

For 18 months he tried to follow the obligations he was placed under, but the pressure told. "I was in such an isolated, alone place that I literally couldn't stay any more and live under those conditions," he says. During those 18 months Bullivant committed 47 breaches of his control order. In the end, he ran away.

"The police are appealing for help to find Lamine Adams, 26, Ibrahim, 20, and Cerie Bullivant, 24, who have now been missing for more than 24 hours," we reported at the time. All three were subsequently found to be innocent.

The appeal was unsuccessful, as Bullivant eluded capture for five weeks before eventually giving himself up.

"We went into hiding... in a bid to - well, I don't know what it was, really," he says. "You can't really give something a name when it's done in a moment of desperation. It wasn't really thinking. It was an awful situation I was in, and then suddenly this door's opened. You see a false dawn for a second that maybe you can have your life back, but then you realise in running away you're just in a control order of your own making. I was still just stuck in one house."

The next six months were spent in Belmarsh prison, whose three inmates under control orders at the time suffered various degrees of mental distress. Eventually a jury acquitted him. Breaching the control order, Mr Justice Collins found, was judged to have been a reasonable course of action, as the control order itself was unreasonable.

Bullivant hangs on to this vindication like it is a tangible medal. Yet he will never be entirely free. Only last week BBC London showed stock footage of him as a 'terror suspect', he told me; could they not have used a different clip? He now works as a film-maker, but his life has taken a very different direction since his life was turned upside down in 2006.

"After I'd managed to clear my name, I sat down with my friends and family and we had a talk about how I should go about rebuilding my life." All agreed he had a "moral obligation" to challenge the control orders regime. "Fundamentally, they're wrong - they're very un-British," he says. "They take away rights that were guaranteed to us as early as the Magna Carta. If we live in a society where this carries on and isn't spoken out against, the next legislation will be worse and worse and worse."

The problem is this is exactly the current situation, he says. The coalition government pledged to replace control orders with something less draconian. It came up with terrorist prevention and investigation measures (TPIMS) - a huge disappointment to civil liberties campaigners, who described as nothing more than a watered-down version of control orders.

The tag of 'control orders lite' soon stuck, but Bullivant objects to even that description. He argues that in some areas they have gone even further than the control orders they are set to replace.

"There are powers within Tpims that were never available during control orders," he says. UN financial sanctions rules have been incorporated which are not part of control orders. Police officers are now able to define the actions and movements of terror suspects under TPIMS - told to go home, or stay at home, without judicial oversight. All this happens without the suspect being charged. "In many ways, the conditions of TPIMS are much, much worse and much more restrictive. They take away a lot of the judicial oversight you had with control orders."

Bullivant fears enhanced Tpims will be introduced as an additional security measure for the Olympic Games, but will not be removed afterwards. "We're shouting to the rest of the world that we're hypocrites," he says.

He does not hold back when he is asked to give his views on the current government's approach. Tpims "punish the innocent and fail to protect us from the guilty", he says. Twenty-nine per cent of those under control orders have absconded and never been caught, he claims. This "massive failure rate" suggests they are not keeping the public safe.

Then there is the flip side: "We're creating a victim community, making chances of so-called radicalisation a lot higher." He is "terrified" by the idea that radical east London clerics have used him as an example - something he is vehemently against.

His frustration with the coalition government, especially the Liberal Democrats, is palpable. But the sense of disappointment against all of the main parties is clear.

"To be treated like that by the country I was born and grew up in is awful," he says. "It's something you would expect in a country like North Korea or Burma or China - not in Great Britain. It shakes the foundations of what you've thought about and believed."

His work has won him acclaim. Earlier this month he won the civil liberties group Liberty's award for human rights young person of the year. It described his personal campaign against control orders and Tpims as "inspirational and courageous".

"The fact is, most of the people on control orders were foreign nationals, people who couldn't easily make the arguments or get their voice heard in the media," he says.

"I was someone who could discuss, debate and make the point - however ineloquently," he jokes. Some of those people, of course, are would-be terrorists. But without any trial there is no way of knowing the innocent victim from the extremist. That's the problem at the heart of this debate.

Bullivant says he felt a "moral obligation" to make the case for those under the control order regime. His motivation was clear: "To do whatever I could for those who are still having their lives ruined." Nearly four years after being exonerated, his efforts are showing no sign of letting up. 

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