News groups in legal bid for MI5 to return reporters' notebooks and allow coverage of secret terror trial

Restrictions on reporting the trial of a law student on terrorism charges are being challenged in the Court of Appeal by a group of media organisations.

The trial at which an Old Bailey jury cleared Erol Incedal of planning a major gun attack in London was held in conditions of unprecedented secrecy.

Much of the trial was in private, with only a small group of journalists being allowed to attend but barred from reporting on anything they saw or heard.

In addition, parts of the trial were held in secret, with the press as well as the public excluded.

Under the procedure adopted for the trial, journalists had to leave their notebooks at the court, where they were locked in a safe, at the end of each day.

According to reports, those notebooks have now been moved – to secure storage at the MI5 headquarters at Thames House, the headquarters of MI5.

At the end of the trial, on 1 April, the jury acquitted Incedal of plotting with a terrorist in Syria either to target individuals such as former prime minister Tony Blair or carry out a "Mumbai-style" outrage using a Kalashnikov.

But he was then jailed for three-and-a-half years for possessing a bomb-making manual on a memory card he had at the time of his arrest in October 2013.

His friend Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who had admitted having an identical document, was jailed for three years by trial judge Mr Justice Nicol – who rejected a media application for the reporting restrictions which had covered the parts of the trial which were held in private to be lifted.

Incedal had admitted in evidence heard in open court that he had the document on a memory card, but had argued that he had a reasonable excuse for having it and so was not committing an offence.

But the jury heard the basis for his belief that he had a reasonable excuse during the private sessions – and those reporters who were present are currently banned from reporting that information.

The appeal is being taken to the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, by a group of media organisations comprising Guardian News & Media, publishers of The Guardian and The Observer, Times Newspapers Ltd, publishers of The Times and The Sunday Times, and Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, News Group Newspapers, publishers of The Sun and Sun on Sunday, Independent Print Ltd, publisher of The Independent and i, the Telegraph Media Group, which publishes The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, and the BBC. It is also being supported by BSkyB and the Press Association.

The application for permission to appeal is being made under section 159 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which allows "any person aggrieved" to appeal against a restriction on reporting all or part of a trial on indictment.

The restrictions still in force mean that those journalists who were at the closed sessions from which the public were excluded could face prosecution for contempt of court, and possible imprisonment, if they were to make public any of the evidence they heard.

The media argue that the judge was wrong to hold that the restrictions had to stay in place, and that the end of the trial meant that the sole justification for the reporting restrictions – that reporting could seriously prejudice the administration of justice – had now gone.

The prosecution had continued with the case on the basis that the secrecy covering the trial itself might not continue after it ended – but the judge took the view that nothing had changed, and the reporting of the closed sessions might deter the Crown from prosecuting similar cases in future, they say.

The media organisations also argue that there is substantial and genuine public interest in reporting of the matters that lay at the heart of the prosecution's case against Incedal, and that without such reporting the public is left unable to understand the real issue at the trial, and the reason for his acquittal on the main charge.

Other areas of challenge cannot be reported because of the current restrictions on reporting of Incedal's two trials.

Mr Justice Nicol issued two judgments rejecting the media's application to lift reporting restrictions – one of which is secret, meaning that most of his reasons for opting for continued secrecy cannot be reported.

Before last year's trial, the Crown had sought complete secrecy – with Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar being kept anonymous, and known only as AB and CD.

Lawyers for the media went to the Court of Appeal to challenge that secrecy.

The Court of Appeal lifted the anonymity, saying the defendants should be named, and declared that while the "core" of the trial could be held in secret it must start and end in public.

It also overruled Mr Justice Nicol's original decision rejecting a proposal that a small number of journalists might be able to attend the bulk of the trial, on terms which compelled confidentiality, and said that Mr Justice Nicol should review the reporting restrictions imposed on the closed sessions once the trial had ended.

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