One result of marketising UK universities is that they now act like private corporations. Campus high-ups make policy by fiat; university senates have little more power than shareholders’ AGMs. Vice chancellors defer to the latest government ukaz, kissing up and kicking down. Like banks and supermarkets, they fret over their public image, and whack employees thought to tarnish the brand, as Nottingham did during the Rod Thornton affair. Now London Metropolitan has suspended three members of staff in its Working Lives Research Institute – Jawad Botmeh, Steve Jefferys and Max Watson – for ‘potential gross misconduct’.
Botmeh, a Palestinian, was hired by Jefferys and Watson five years ago. In 1996 he had been convicted with a co-accused, Samar Alami, of planning the 1994 car bombings of the Israeli embassy in Kensington and Balfour House in Finchley; Alami and Botmeh each served 13 years in prison. Botmeh’s BMW had been seen at a car auction in Milton Keynes, where the Audi used for the embassy bomb was bought under an alias by one Radi or Reda Mughrabi, whom the police never traced. Alami was initially released but re-arrested when police found anti-Israel pamphlets, guns and a small quantity of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosive in a locker she rented in Acton, apparently left there at Mughrabi’s request.
Botmeh and Alami’s convictions have widely been branded as unsafe. Botmeh was a known associate of Mughrabi, but no hard evidence links him to the bombs. Forensic trawls at the bomb-sites recovered no TATP or indeed any explosive traces; experts deposed that TATP was probably not the explosive used because of its instability. The prosecution presented letters sent on the day of the bombings to Arabic newspapers and the PLO, claiming responsibility on behalf of the otherwise unknown ‘Palestine Resistance Jaffa Group’, supposedly a British splinter group from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. However, no fingerprint or other evidence linked the accused to the letters. A drawing in a notebook owned by Alami which the Crown claimed was of Finchley turned out to be a sketch-map of Sidon.
Both Alami and Botmeh had alibis, though neither realised it when first detained by police, six months later. Neither had tried to flee the country. Because of the alibis, they were tried on conspiracy charges. Intelligence-based evidence used at the trial was withheld from the defence under a public-interest immunity certificate; the prosecution also tried to PII new evidence at appeal, which suggested British intelligence had been tipped off before the bombings. The role of PII casts further doubt on the current move to extend ex parte hearings to civil cases.
Whether or not Botmeh’s conviction was sound, he declared it when hired in 2008. He was suspended more than five years later, but immediately after being elected a Unison staff governor. This may be read in one of two ways. First, LMU senior management only woke up to the fact that they employed Botmeh when he became a Unison official; second, they already knew, but only acted when he got the union post. Botmeh declared his conviction again when he applied to LMU for a longer term contract in 2010. As Jefferys wrote to London Met’s governors, its human resources department must have known of Botmeh’s background since he was dismissed and quickly reinstated when the Home Office mistakenly thought he lacked a work permit.
LMU’s privatisation plans have been stalled by Unison on one side and Theresa May on the other. In enforcing the government’s absurd policy of including foreign students in immigration figures, May has stilettoed LMU, which relies heavily on overseas student income: last August the UK Border Agency stripped LMU of ‘highly trusted sponsor’(HTS) status when an audit showed a quarter of its international students didn’t have leave to remain in the UK. LMU now intends to axe 150 posts in its Business School and make existing staff – apart from the dean – reapply for their jobs.
It emerged in 2008 that LMU had scammed £36 million (later uprated to £56 million) from taxpayers by overstating student numbers to boost its block grant. No wonder its top brass were too busy to do criminal-record checks on staff. And, with its HTS status up for review last month, no doubt LMU thought it was a good time to wallop undesirables.