Ai Weiwei and his legal team have, since 2011, fought allegations, arrests and fines for tax evasion case widely regarded as "political retaliation" by the Chinese goverment.
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The Ai Weiwei papers

On 27 September, the Chinese courts rejected Ai’s second appeal against a £1.5m fine for tax evasion. Here, his legal team sets out the facts of a case riddled with corruption and secrecy.

An Introduction
Jerome A Cohen

The New Statesman is rendering a great public service in making available an English-language account of the Chinese government’s use of its tax laws to persecute the innovative and courageous Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Having been pressured by world opinion to release Ai from the harsh and blatantly illegal confinement to which its police had subjected him for almost three months, the Chinese government decided to crush him by resorting to economic measures whose illegality would presumably be less apparent both to its own citizens and to the outside world.

Fortunately, thanks to the presentation that follows this introduction, the unfairness and abuses that have marked this tax case have been unmasked. As Ai’s lawyers make clear, at both the administrative and the judicial levels the proceedings against him have been a farce. Much of the evidence apparently used against Ai was unlawfully collected and retained by the police and the tax authorities. Administrative hearings that purported to determine his alleged tax liability were truncated and plainly in violation of international standards of due process of law, and the subsequent judicial reviews were no better.

I personally am saddened at this spectacle for reasons that transcend our friendship and my admiration for Ai. It is nauseating to witness the damage that the Chinese government has chosen to inflict on its reputation through the misuse of its criminal justice and tax systems. As an international lawyer and a law professor seeking to assist in China’s economic development, I spent over 20 years co-operating with Chinese officials who were seeking to develop a legal  system that would earn the confidence of its own people and of the foreign business community. Beginning in 1979, for several years I enjoyed especially close relations with the National Taxation Bureau, which, during the early period of the Deng Xiaoping reform era, led the way for other government agencies in establishing impressive regulations and procedures for carrying out its responsibilities and for developing a legal process worthy of respect.

The handling of the Ai Weiwei case has been totally inconsistent with that earlier accomplishment. Neither the Chinese nor the foreign communities can afford to ignore the scandalous mistreatment of Ai. If he can become the victim of criminal and commercial injustice, no one in China or who deals with China can feel safe.

Jerome Cohen is a professor of law at New York University and an expert in Chinese law

The Fake Cultural Development Ltd tax case

1. Process summary

On 3 April 2011 in the morning, Ai Weiwei was taken away by police at passport control at Beijing Capital International Airport.

On 3 April 2011 at midday, Beijing Public Security searched Ai Weiwei’s residence for almost 12 hours. They confiscated 127 items, including computers and CDs. Ten people were taken to the police station for questioning until the early morning.

On 3 April 2011 at midday, Ai Weiwei’s assistant Wen Tao was kidnapped by four plainclothes police officers and went missing. He was illegally detained at a secret location and not released by public security until 24 June. Before this, his family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 6 April 2011 in the evening, Beijing Municipal Public Security went to Beijing Huxin Ltd, the bookkeepers of Fake Ltd. They searched company information, including bookkeeping records and financial statements, dating from its establishment. Xinhua News Agency then published an English bulletin: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.”

On 7 April 2011, Beijing Public Security brought the company accountant, Hu Mingfen, who was visiting family in Lanzhou, back to Beijing. After being put in a detention centre for one month, she was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until she was “granted bail” on 13 June. Her family received no official notification.

On 8 April 2011, the Second Tax Inspection Bureau and Beijing Public Security searched and confiscated all of Fake’s financial and accounting information, contracts and seals from 2005 to 2010.

On 9 April 2011, the Fake shareholder and manager Liu Zhenggang was kidnapped by four men in plain clothes. After being put in a detention centre for one month, he was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until he was “granted bail” on 11 June. His family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 10 April 2011, the driver Zhang Jinsong was taken away. After being put in a detention centre for one month, he was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until he was “granted bail” on 23 June. During this time, his family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 12 April, Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau questioned Fake’s legal representative, Lu Qing, for the first time. On 20 May 2011, Xinhua News Agency published a bulletin stating: “Public Security has investigated the alleged Ai Weiwei economic crimes case. The preliminary finding is that Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, under the actual control of Ai Weiwei, has committed offences including evading a large tax payment and deliberately destroying accounting records.”

On 22 June 2011, after 81 days in detention, Ai Weiwei was released “on bail” and returned home. His family members received no official notification. They could not get information about his suspected crime, what forceful measures were used and where he had been detained.

On 14 July 2011, the Bejing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau held a closed hearing.

On 1 November 2011, the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau decided that Fake had committed tax evasion and was required to pay 5,263,756.61 yuan in back taxes, a 3,190,331.52 yuan late-payment penalty and a 6,766,822.37 yuan fine. The three payments totalled 15,220,910.50 yuan (£1.5m).  n 29 December 2011, Fake asked for an administrative review at the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau. On 29 March 2012, the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau turned down the request for a review.

On 13 April 2012, Fake sued the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau at Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court. The trial opened on 20 June 2012. On 20 July, the court rejected the entire Fake case.

On 3 August 2012, Fake lodged an appeal at Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court. On 27 September 2012, in the company’s second and final appeal, the intermediate court upheld the original decision.

2. Points of controversy in the tax case

The Fake tax case contains grave problems and controversy in terms of both procedure and facts.

1. Points of controversy in the procedure

Procedure is essential in implementing justice.

Although Fake repeatedly raised serious procedural issues, the tax authorities and courts gave
no response. The main problems at each stage of the procedure are as follows:

1.1. Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau
1.1.1. Public security exceeded its authority in the Fake tax case.

According to the Criminal Law Amendment (7) and the regulations on the administrative pre-procedure related to “Provisions (II) of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security on the Standards for Establishing Criminal Cases under the Juris - diction of the Public Security Organs for In - vestigation and Prosecution”, only after the offending party has declined to implement tax administration penalties and after the tax organs have transferred the case to public security organs can public security organs establish a criminal case against the responsible parties. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau made its decision against Fake only on 1 November 2011. It is clear that in April 2011 public security detained five people in secret, including Ai Weiwei, on the grounds of “tax evasion”. They searched and confiscated Fake financial information, which was exceeding their authority and handling the case illegally.

In the Fake tax case, the tax organs were completely reliant on the Public Security Bureau for their evidence, and the police were pushed to the legislative foreground, which strengthened the contradiction and artificially produced   case of “major impact”. The police administration was brought into the government administration mechanism, which in essence weakened the function of legal and responsible adminstration.

1.1.2. “Arrest before investigation” is a violation of the law. On 3 April 2011, public security took Ai Weiwei away. They then detained four people, including a Fake shareholder and the company accountant. However, of the evidence  in the file put together by public security, none was collected before 3 April 2011. The essence of “an arrest before investigation” is assuming that a suspect is guilty.

1.1.3. The authorities confiscated all the company’s account books and refused to give them back. During the Fake case review, first hearing and final hearing, the company’s account books were confiscated by Beijing Municipal Public Security and not given back.

1.2. Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau

The Bureau was responsible for the adminis - trative handling of the case. The following problems existed in its administration and law enforcement:

1.2.1. More than 95 per cent of the evidence came from public security and was obtained illegally. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau issued the following statement on the composition and source of the “evidence list”:

“1. Account books, certificates and related tax documents were provided to the defendant after they were obtained by public security  organs from the plaintiff’s bookkeeping company;

2. Third-party account books, certificates, instructions and other materials were provided to the defendant after public security organs obtained them;  

3. Notes from public security questioning were taken by public security and then provided to the defendant;

4. Bank statements etc were provided to the defendant after they were obtained from the bank by public security;

5. Inspection process documents and notes were produced by the defendant; 6. Tax records, inspection materials and certificates from tax organs were obtained by the defendant.”

This indicates that most of the evidence that the defendant cited in the Fake tax case and for making a decision came from the Public Security Bureau.

Fake believed that: first, the evidence “transferred” from public security organs was obtained while violating legal procedures. It therefore constituted illegal evidence and should be discounted. Second, the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes has given tax organs tax inspection rights through legal means. This is the responsibility of the tax organs, and the public security organs should not be investigating on their behalf.

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau argued that the public security organisations exercise judicial authority. According to the 57th and 58th clauses of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes, tax organs have the right to obtain relevant documents from organisations including public security organs. Based on this, obtaining evidence from public security organs is legal.

Fake believed that the 57th and 58th clauses of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes gave tax organs the right to investigate “relevant organizations and individuals, regarding taxpayers, withholding agents and other parties and their situation regarding tax payments or tax withheld and remitted or collected and remitted”. This is completely different from public security investigating taxpayers and transferring evidence, so the defendant’s response was irrelevant.

1.2.2. None of the evidence had been crossexamined. This should be regarded as a lack of factual basis. During the hearing procedure, the bureau presented only part of the review document. It had not been checked. During the trial, the plaintiff’s right to cross-examine was also removed by the court.

1.2.3. In order to comply with public security, coercive methods were used to obtain evidence. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau and public security, on condition of “bail”, coerced Ai Weiwei, who was in prison, to sign a “recognition of alleged tax violations” on 22 June 2011.
This was self-incrimination, and was used as forceful evidence that Fake had evaded taxes. It would be hard to imagine that the “recognition of alleged tax violations” could be a legal document at the tax inspection trial stage. However, it appeared at the previous tax inspection stage, as if a man-made satellite had appeared in the Qin or Han Dynasty.

1.2.4. The tax inspection work had no statutory elements or contents.

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau did not have documents such as the “tax inspection working paper”, “tax inspection report” and “tax inspection trial report”. The contents of the “decision declaration” were incomplete. It did not mention how the “tax evasion” amount or the late-payment penalty amount were calculated.

1.2.5. The hearing process violated the law. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau did not conduct an open hearing on the basis that the case involved commercial secrets. This reason is not valid, and the facts later confirmed that the socalled commercial secrets did not exist.

1.3. Beijing Local Taxation Bureau

The bureau carried out the review. On 2 February 2012, Fake applied to the bureau for a review of the documents and hearing attendance. On 27 and 28 March the document inspection started. On 29 March, the bureau made a decision about the review. Not only did it refuse to conduct a hearing, it made a decision about the review in less than 12 hours after the lawyers finished inspecting the document. They deprived the attorney of his right to state his case and the right to defence.

1.4. Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court

Fake sued the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau at Beijing Chao - yang District Court. The hearing was held on 20 June 2012.

1.4.1. It was called an open trial but in fact it was a secret trial. A trial as conspicuous as this was arranged in a small court, which could hold five spectators only. Five insiders were arranged to take up all the seats, and Fake was not allocated any spectator seats.

1.4.2. The court did not carry out its obligation in collecting evidence. Fake had previously requested the court to provide evidence of the plaintiff’s account books and certificates that were confiscated by public security, but the court had decided not to collect the evidence prior to the court session, nor had it sent a notification to the plaintiff saying that collecting this evidence was not allowed.

When Fake asked the court about this, the collegiate bench said, “We will answer this after the trial opens.”

1.4.3. The court did not carry out its obligationto call witnesses. Fake applied to summon Liu Zhenggang, Hu Mingfen and others as witnesses, but the court did not inform them. It claimed that the obligation to notify lay with the plaintiff. Fake asked for the defendant’s law- enforcement officials – ten people, including You Pengnan – to testify, but the court did not arrange for it.

On the contrary, however, after the court opened, You Pengnan appeared, representing the defendant. Fake raised an objection, but the collegiate bench replied that the company should raise it again after the trial.

1.4.4. The court removed the plaintiff’s right to present evidence. Fake requested evidence
from the collegiate bench prior to the opening of the court, but received no response. On 20
June in the morning, Fake went to the Three Shadows Cultural Exchange Centre and obtained evidence partly sufficient to overrule the decision. In the afternoon of 20 June, before the court opened and three times during the court session, the evidence was presented to the collegiate bench, but the court did not accept it, because it “overran the deadline for presenting evidence”.

1.4.5. The court refused to investigate the legitimacy of the sources of the evidence. According to law, the defendant can collect his own evidence, but it was all collected by public security authorities. More than 95 per cent of the evidence on administrative behaviour presented by the defendant was collected by public security organs.

Public security intervened in the tax case illegally, and the evidence was illegally obtained from detainees, which was not legitimate. Therefore, the plaintiff asked for the above evidence to be discounted. However, the court claimed that “the legitimacy of the public security investigations is not within the range of this court’s hearing”.

1.4.6. The court refused the plaintiff’s legitimate request to check the original evidence documents, and illegally removed the plaintiff’s right to cross-examination. During the session, the defendant failed to present any original documents for evidence. The presiding judge, Wu Nan, upon the request to see the documents, repeatedly struck his gavel and said, “As for the documents, the court has already made a decision; do not bring it up again!”

The court “summarised” when questioning the evidence and did not control the questioning time reasonably. Pieces of evidence numbering a thousand pages were given five minutes for questioning: on average, less than one second for every page of evidence. If the time exceeded five minutes, then the questioning would be regarded as abandoned.

1.4.7. The court removed the plaintiff’s right to debate. The plaintiff’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by the judges and was counted down. During the debate stage, three attorneys spoke for only ten minutes in total. The plaintiff could not fully express an opinion.

1.4.8. For these reasons, the plaintiff considered that the collegiate bench could not carry out this trial justly, and therefore requested the court to withdraw the case.

After the court was adjourned, the collegiate bench refused the request. The plaintiff appealed the decision, and the Chaoyang District Court refused orally, refusing to offer any written documentation.

1.4.9. The court refused to allow the litigants and the representatives to copy the court notes.
After the hearing, the court administrative divisional director promised the defendant that the following day at two o’clock in the afternoon they could come to the court to copy the notes, but the next day when they went to court, copying was no longer permitted, the court citing internal regulations.

1.4.10. The order of legal procedures was swapped when the court refused Fake’s request for evidence only after the trial. On 7 June 2012, Fake made its “application for collecting evidence” to the court.  The court did not respond. Yet after the court opened on 4 July, it decided not to allow any evidence to be collected. The reason given was that the defendant “did not meet the conditions for requesting evidence”. However, the decision did not contain a notification, required by law, to specify “which group and which piece of evidence violated which condition for evidence collection”.

2. Focus of controversy over the facts of the case 

Global Times, a subsidiary of the Chinese official newspaper the People’s Daily, published an editorial, entitled “The law will not bend for mavericks”, on the Ai Weiwei tax case, saying that certain western governments and “human rights organisations” had attacked China with strong commentary without understanding the true situation.

What is the truth behind the Ai tax case? Fake Ltd was established by the shareholders Lu Qing and Liu Zhenggang. Lu Qing was the legal representative and the wife of Ai Weiwei. Liu Zhenggang was business manager, responsible for company operations. The company’s income came mainly from design services. Ai Weiwei was not a staff member of Fake, but provided guidance and advice to the design services of Fake as an independent artist.

Fake went into operation in 2001. The tax organs believed that, over ten years of operation (until 2010), Fake concealed three counts of income, totalling 15,823,724.36 yuan. They pursued unpaid taxes of 5,263,756.61 yuan, a fine for overdue payment of 3,190,331.52 yuan and a penalty of 6,766,822.37 yuan, totaling 15,220,910.50 yuan.

Regarding the facts, the parties were in controversy over the following:

2.1. Who was the tax-paying entity for these three projects with alleged tax issues?

The standard for determining the tax-paying entity depends not on form, but on substance. This is the so-called principle of substance over formality in tax law. The heart of the problem is, who was the true controller of these three projects? Usually the actual controller is determined by who has the right to dispose of and the right to benefit from income. In tax law, the object of the test to determine the right to dispose of and the right to benefit from income is the sum of income. The public security organ, tax organ and the lawyers of Fake all acknowledged that Liu Zhenggang disposed of and controlled the project funding in the case. It is a shame that the conclusion drawn by each party was very different.

2.2. Was it tax evasion?

Regardless of whether the tax-paying entity was Ai Weiwei, Fake Ltd or Liu Zhenggang, the fact that tax duty had not been declared on the income for the three engineering projects is not in dispute. The key to the problem is, does the failure to declare taxable income constitute tax evasion?

According to China’s Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes, there are generally three types of failure to declare tax duty:

2.2.1. “Tax evasion”: falsely filing or deliberately failing to file taxes, causing an underpayment
of tax, following Term 63 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. This is breaking the law. If it reaches a certain ratio, it constitutes a crime.

According to Term 201 of the Criminal Law, it is the crime of evading payment of tax. The constituents must consist of the resulting elements, namely underpayment of tax and of a clear amount.

2.2.2. “Tax leakage”: not deception or concealment, but human error causing underpayment of tax, according to Term 64, Article 2 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. It counts as a normal administrative offence, not a criminal offence.

2.2.3. “Making up tax”: underpayment of tax caused by reasons not related to the actor (including incomplete factors in levying tax), as in Article 35 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. For example, where, although it is clearly income, the expenditure can’t be verified. The tax organ, by approving the profit rate, makes complete the factors in levying tax to realise the aim of levying tax. This type of underpayment of tax is the result of the expansion of administrative powers of the tax organs. It is not breaking the law, so the authorities cannot levy an overdue payment fine or penalty fine.

The contention of this case is focused on the dispute between “tax evasion” and “making up tax”. A simplified breakdown illustrates:

According to the law, when the cost is difficult to verify, an estimated tax should be levied. It should not be handled as a case of tax evasion. When the costs and expenses of a project cannot be checked, it cannot be asserted that the party has been evading tax.

2.3. The issue of verifying costs and expenditures for the three projects

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau said, “The defendant, upon confirming the total amount of taxes that the plaintiff should have paid, has also confirmed the costs related to the taxable income and subtracted it according to regulations.”

The plaintiff believed that the three projects that the tax bureau considered as evading taxes are defined by incomes that greatly mismatch with their costs. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau verified the income of the Boya Garden project as 1,107,716.00 yuan and its costs as nil. That goes against common sense. Income from the Three Shadows and Upper House projects was 14,716,008.36 yuan, the confirmed cost was nearly 1,047,349.39 yuan and the rate of profit was 92.88 per cent.

The costs were ridiculously low because the public security and tax organs jointly and deliberately concealed evidence of costs. For example, it has already been proved that Three Shadows, upon requests from the public security organ, presented it with receipts for expenditure of 3,738,551.06 yuan for materials used in the project. However, the total cost for all three projects that the tax organ received from the public security organ was only 1,047,349.39
yuan, less than a third of the cost for one project. Through this kind of deliberate selection of evidence, the profits of the projects were artificially enhanced to frame the company.

3. Conclusion

When one looks at the overall progress of the case, it is clearly an erroneous lawsuit. How could it have proceeded so smoothly? Because all the processes had already been arranged. The tax law-enforcement organ, the administrative review organ, the judicial court or representative lawyer were all following a set course. Administrative surveillance, independent trial and lawyer participation had no opportunity to exercise their rightful functions.

Tax cases such as that of Fake are ubiquitous in China. Unjust cases of sanctioning a party through tax means are also common. Most of the affected parties choose to remain silent in exchange for a reduction of the penalty by the tax organisation.

Fake used all means to fight its case, exposing illegality at each stage. This is unprecedented. The wish is that, through the heavy price paid by Fake, through the price for freedom paid by a person who doesn’t believe in following trends and who dares to speak the truth, we can make progress in China’s law enforcement.

The information used in this article was provided by Ai Weiwei’s lawyers

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit