London, United Kingdom - The head of an investigation into the deaths of six British nationals and one UK resident in an attack on a major gas facility in Algeria was replaced just days ahead of the inquest's start on Monday.
The inquiry is being held to establish the circumstances of the deaths of the Britons killed at the In Amenas gas facility in January 2013, after al-Qaeda-linked attackers stormed the plant and took hundreds of workers hostage. Sixty-nine people died in the three-day siege, including 39 foreign hostages, an Algerian security guard, and 29 attackers.
The plant is operated by a consortium including British oil giant BP, Norway's Statoil, and Algerian state energy company Sonatrach.
The move to change the lead investigator - Penelope Schofield, who headed the inquest for the past 14 months - was made after "sensitive" information concerning the case came to light earlier this month that could only be seen by someone with a high-level security clearance, which Schofield did not have.
"This all happened a week before the inquest was due to start, and there were people coming from all over the world," said a victim's relative, who asked not to be named because she had been advised by legal representatives not to speak to the press.
"Everyone was psyched up to face this and felt completely let down."
Fraser Whitehead, head of litigation at Slater & Gordon, which is representing four British citizens employed as contractors to BP, said the "sensitive" information is believed to relate to national security, but nothing else is known.
"They [the Crown] have been a bit ambivalent. When the barrister who appeared at the hearing on behalf of the Crown applied for an adjournment, he implied that it was a national security-type material," Whitehead told Al Jazeera.
Schofield will be replaced by Nicholas Hilliard, who was appointed assistant coroner on the case in April. As a judge, Hilliard has the necessary security clearance to review the documents, enabling the inquest to go forward without further delay.
We don't run the facility - it's run by a joint venture - and security in the whole area is the responsibility of the government, just like it would be in this country.
But there remains the threat that the inquiry could be adjourned again in light of the documents, or if other sensitive materials surfaced during the inquest.
"We have raised the question of what the material is relevant to and whether it needs to be seen at the beginning of the inquest or right at the end," said Whitehead. "We are still anxious that it might be introduced early, and that the case might be adjourned once more.
"The problem with this kind of material is that it emerges as time goes on. We don't have any guarantee that it won't happen again. If another adjournment was threatened, we would be raising serious questions."
At the pre-inquest hearing, Schofield offered to step down and adjourn the case until the issue could be resolved, or until she could apply for the necessary security clearance. But Slater & Gordon objected on the grounds that it was not fair to the families either to remove Schofield, or to delay the inquest further.
Schofield withdrew her offer to stand down and the case was adjourned for a week to allow the chief coroner, Peter Thornton, to hear representations on the matter from the legal teams concerned. Thornton then decided that Schofield should step down and be replaced by Hilliard in order to avoid an extended delay.
"We resisted the adjournment and the coroner's decision to voluntarily resign," Whitehead said. "She'd been working on the case since its inception 14-months ago and we felt that she was doing a competent job. Our clients were happy with her, she understood what they wanted from the inquest, and we felt that she'd done a good job focusing on the key issues."
Even an adjournment of a week put added stress on the families of those killed in the attack. "No one can move on," says the relative. "It hangs over you. I hate not having closure because I can't move on."
Because of the sensitive nature of the documents, nothing is known about the content, and this is likely to remain the case. The documents cannot be used in open court.
|Security has been stepped up at the plant after the attack [Reuters]
The timing of the sensitive material coming to light has caused frustration among the families of the victims and their representatives. It has been 20 months since the attack took place.
"It was very unfair to us," said another relative of one of those killed, who asked not to be named on the advice of a lawyer. "It was all a bit of a mess. We were so angry that at the last minute, literally the night before [the pre-inquest hearing] the government threw a curveball.
"All my family had taken unpaid time off to be there that week. It was cruel - it seemed like a delaying tactic. We had a bit of confidence in Penny Schofield. She said she'd leave no stone unturned."
According to Whitehead, though, the sensitive material has only recently surfaced. "A week ago we received a letter from the senior coroner that gave a strong indication that this particularly sensitive material had only very recently been disclosed," he said.
"The timing was unfortunate. One would like to hope that the interests of justice have prevailed and that nothing untoward is going on, and that's the assumption we're making. The inquest is going forward and our hope is that the families will not be further prejudiced. This outweighs our concerns over the timing."
There was also relief among the families that the process is going forward. "I feel better that there won't be a lengthy delay," said the first relative. "Judge Hilliard is an experienced judge with a background in criminal law. I think his appointment will give the inquest more credence. [But] I still can't understand what could be in these so-called documents."
There are also plans for a civil case against BP.
"BP have denied liability [for the deaths] in terms of civil responsibility, but we anticipate there will be civil proceedings in due course after the conclusion of the inquest," says Clive Garner, a lawyer at Irwin Mitchell solicitors, which is representing the families of another of the victims.
We are definitely looking at bringing a civil claim on behalf of the UK nationals killed.
Whitehead said security arrangements by the company weren't dealt with "in a way our clients might have expected".
"We are definitely looking at bringing a civil claim on behalf of the UK nationals killed," he said.
Robert Wine, a spokesman for BP, told Al Jazeera: "We don't run the facility - it's run by a joint venture - and security in the whole area is the responsibility of the government, just like it would be in this country."
Since the attack, the Algerian government has introduced new security measures at the facility and other plants around the country. These include air surveillance of oil-and-gas installations, more thorough security checks on staff working at the plants, and a new security database for workers in the industry.
Expatriate staff employed by Statoil have now returned to normal staffing rotations at the In Amenas plant, according to a statement by the company in early September.
Another issue facing the inquest was the denial of a request for relevant documents from the Algerian authorities.
"We understand that the coroner's request for relevant documentation has been denied by the authorities in Algeria," said Garner. "There was a refusal to disclose the information due to the ongoing criminal process there."
When criminal proceedings in Algeria are likely to start and finish, however, is unknown. "We understand that the criminal trial in Algeria hasn't commenced [and] we don't know when it will end, whether it will be three months or three years," Garner said.
"It's frustrating from our perspective. But the coroner has taken the decision to proceed with the inquest [without the documentation from Algeria], and we feel that that is the right decision."
Source: Al Jazeera