At an event last year celebrating the unparalleled contribution made by Professor Clive Walker QC to the law, in particular in the fields of miscarriages of justice and terrorism, one of those present reflected that there seemed to be an absence in the modern criminal justice system of epoch-ending cases, like the Birmingham Six or Guildford Four. I remarked in response that I thought the case of Wang Yam might be that case, the shadow it cast on British justice the longer and darker as a result of much of his trial being held in secret, for the first time in these developed, enlightened times. Naturally, I was therefore drawn to Thomas Harding’s book, Blood on the Page, when it was published in January of this year.
Wang Yam’s arrival in the United Kingdom was precipitated by the terrible events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989, indelibly engraved in world history by the photograph of a pro-democracy protester confronting a Chinese tank. The image became an icon of the spirit of resistance in the face of oppressive government. It is perverse therefore that exactly seventeen years later, in June 2006, following the discovery of the dead body of Allan Chappelow in his Hampstead home, that the British government would later issue public interest immunity certificates, suppressing material relevant to Wang Yam’s trial from public gaze and require that much of his trial be held in secret. Not only that, several journalists and author Mr Harding (who had by then yet to write a word) received threats of contempt and injunction proceedings from government lawyers. In his own stand off with the state, Harding put together this remarkable account of the Chappelow murder and the trials and appeals of Wang Yam.
As a self-proclaimed Dreyfusard (in recognition of one of history’s most grotesque miscarriages of justice, the persecution of Alfred Dreyfus) the perniciousness of a secret trial has always been deeply troubling – Lord Bingham, in the Rule of Law, described it as always “a ground for concern”. In my own professional life I appeared in the High Court and later the Supreme Court on behalf of an SAS officer who had been affected by an unlawful order made during a secret hearing directing the production of what was described as the incriminating evidence against him following his arrest for allegedly breaching the Official Secrets Act. His arrest had resulted in his resignation from the British Army. He was never charged with an offence. The events changed his and his family’s life forever. The secrecy led to an absence of accountability. It weakened the rule of law and consequentially, the integrity of the justice system. The author, Emile Zola in his magnificent treatise, J’Accuse, in part exposed the Dreyfus affair; he risked prosecution himself by publishing it. Mr Harding does not go that far but his excellent book highlights a number of aspects of the Chappelow case that lead inexorably to the conclusion that the investigation into his murder was less than it should have been. Valid lines of enquiry were not pursued – a similar murder around the same time, an attempted robbery at knife-point only a few doors away from the victim’s and undercurrents of Chappelow’s possible involvement in illicit, violent homosexual activity – all of which were explored following a reference back to the Court of Appeal by the CCRC. By necessity, the scrutiny was less than it might otherwise have been had the police kept an open mind at the early stages of the investigation. Retrospective consideration of such evidence by the Court of Appeal is never ideal. In the end, the link between evidence of theft from the victim and the murder was considered a Gordian knot incapable of being cut.
Harding unfolds the events with the ease of the great storyteller, despite the complexities of the pathology of the two protagonists: Wang Yam’s upbringing in and departure from China (that could easily be straight from the pages of Le Carre); and Chappelow, a reclusive victim. The account of events surrounding the death of Chappelow takes on a Victorian feel, as if a mist descends upon Hampstead Heath, where the murderous activities of some ghoul at large go unseen. This in turn becomes almost a metaphor for the secret trial itself.
Lawyers will be quick to point out some errors of accuracy but these are of no importance to the narrative. This is a book that should be read by lawyers but is not written for lawyers. It is the better for it. Readers will not be beguiled by legal terminology and where it is used it is with a lack of familiarity that makes it more digestible. It is a troubling story that should cause alarm. Whilst Wang Yam’s trial might have been the first secret trial in recent times, it has been followed by other secret trials. It is no longer the exception or the rule. It occupies a middle ground where the law can go one of two ways: normalise secrecy or put a stop to it. In Incedal (discussed here) the Lord Chief Justice began to express some discomfort about the relationship between the independent prosecution service and the intelligence services and I have recently expressed concern about Public Interest Immunity on national security grounds here. This book may increase public awareness of the issues secret trials can give rise to so that if, in future, there are further attempts to erode the principle of open justice, there may be greater public resistance.
There is a final tragic element to this book that demands mention. It is the story of the diminishing Wang Yam, who with ever weakening resolve, no, resignation, confronts the news that the efforts to free him fail. The resistance is fading. As Zola wrote on learning of the plight of Dreyfus, “it is my duty to speak. I do not want to be complicit. My nights would be haunted by the spectre of an innocent man [punished] for a crime he did not commit”. Mr Harding has with this book done what he can to emulate the gesture. But as with Dreyfus, the issue is bigger than an author (or judge, or lawyer). It is the truth that endured then and may yet endure now.
Buy this book, tell your friends and colleagues about it and ask them to buy it. Read it, talk about it. Above all, take a place behind Wang Yam and resist.