Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Curious Case of Abu Qatada

Abu Qatada
So, it appears that Abu Qatada, a noted Islamist cleric with some rather unsavoury views on what should happen to non-Muslims, has been released again.

Cue the vicious outcry from all and sundry on how it is ridiculous that this man has not been deported. He's a baddie, they say. He should have gone ages ago.

It would appear that a little refreshment of his case would be in order. The Telegraph have produced an excellent timeline and summary of the situation - I won't repeat it in full, but I will highlight a few pieces which seem, to me, to be particularly important, and use it to answer a few myths about him.

1. He's an illegal immigrant and shouldn't be here anyway.
True - he entered Britain on a forged passport in September 1993. He immediately applied for asylum. Technically, those seeking asylum from persecution should claim it in the first friendly state they arrive in. It is perfectly possible that Qatada arrived by plane - to be honest, I can't find any reference that says how he arrived in this country. If it was any way other than by plane, then he was most likely at least in France first, in which case, why didn't he claim asylum there? However, the fact is that he was, rightly or wrongly, granted asylum in June 1994. He is therefore not an illegal immigrant, and the 'shouldn't be here anyway' argument is purely academic.

2. We're only trying to send him back where he belongs.
We are trying to deport him to Jordan, as he holds Jordanian citizenship. I doubt he would identify himself as Jordanian. He was born in Bethlehem in the West Bank in either 1959 or 1960, in what is now classed as the Palestinian Territories. At the time, it was occupied by Jordan. He is a Palestinian Muslim with Jordanian citizenship.

3. He's wanted in Jordan for crimes anyway - we should just send him there.
He isn't just wanted for crimes in Jordan - he has been tried and convicted in absentia. Yes, they held a trial for him without him actually being present to defend himself. In English Law, we refer to this concept - actually being there in person to contend your accusers - as habeas corpus. It is one of the oldest and most valued legal rights we have. The Jordanians didn't bother with it.

What concern of that is ours, I hear you say? Well, we granted him asylum, and therefore accepted some level of responsibility for him. We can't just turn him over to a foreign power without assurances that he's going to receive a fair trial.

4. They've said they're going to give him a fair trial.
They've said that, but that hasn't convinced the courts. Especially since the Jordanians have used evidence obtained by torture in trials before. This would be illegal under UK law, and given that we have assumed some responsibility for him, we can't just wash our hands of him. The condition of the Jordanian justice system is precisely the reason his deportation is being blocked.

5. But he's guilty of crimes in this country, isn't he?
He may well be, but given that he's never been charged, prosecuted, tried or convicted, we can't say for certain. He was arrested in February 2001 in connection with a plot to bomb Strasbourg Christmas Market, and was suspected of fomenting Islamist terrorism in Chechnya. However, he was not charged. He was bailed, and broke his bail conditions in December 2001. He was found and re-arrested in October 2002, and detained in Belmarsh High Security Prison. He was still not charged.

He was held in Belmarsh without charge or trial for 3 years, before finally being released on conditional bail  and subjected to a control order. He was shortly re-arrested under immigration rules, as part of the Government's attempt to deport him to Jordan. He was re-imprisoned without trial for a further 3 years. The Court of Appeal ruled that he could not be deported, as the Jordanian Government could not assure him a fair trial. He was again bailed, and then re-arrested after the Home Office told the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, a UK court which is held in secret, that he was at high risk of absconding.

He has been in and out of prison in the UK for over 10 years, but he has never been charged or tried in a court of law.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg
6. This is just the EU telling us to keep him, isn't it?
No. In 2009, the Law Lords (then the highest legal authority in the UK) ruled that he could be deported to Jordan on the basis of the diplomatic assurances given. He appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), an international court established just after World War Two, which has a far wider jurisdiction than the EU. They awarded him compensation on the basis of his detention without charge or trial in 2009, but in 2012, the ECHR agreed with the Law Lords that he could be deported, provided that there was no risk of evidence obtained via torture being used against him.

Qatada's legal team again appealed to the ECHR (within the deadline, despite the Home Secretary Teresa May's objections to the contrary), but their appeal was rejected.

By and large, the ECHR, not the EU, agree with the decisions of the UK courts.

7. So why has he been released again?
Qatada was granted another hearing at the secret UK court of SIAC (Special Immigrations Appeal Commission) to test the diplomatic assurances provided by the Jordanian Government. He won that appeal, and has been released on bail again. Again, the UK courts (even the secret ones) remain unconvinced that he will receive a fair trial if he is deported to Jordan.

8. So why don't we just try him here? He'll receive a fair trial in the UK, surely?
That is a very fucking good question. Not only, 'why do we not try him here?', but also, 'why has he not already been tried?'

Both the previous and current UK Governments have detained Qatada without bothering to attempt to try him, and have actively tried to deport him to a foreign state in the full knowledge that he may be tortured if he goes, or that he may not receive a fair trial. And then we have protests from different people calling for changes to human rights legislation, and even for Ministers to be allowed to decide who stays in the country!

Qatada keeps being successful in his appeals because, put quite simply, what the Government is trying to do is wrong. They are trying to render a man to a foreign power which may torture him or subject him to a show trial, simply because they think he is a danger to national security, but refuse to submit those allegations to legal scrutiny. And because this man has some reprehensible views and has said some horrible things, people agree with them. And they are so desperate to be rid of him that they are considering changing the law, and thus trampling over the legal rights of everyone in the country in order to do it.

The reason all these checks and balances and hearings and appeals are taking place, the reason that human rights legislation exists, the reason for habeas corpus and the right to a fair trial, the reason for all of this is not to stop the Government from dealing with horrible people. It is to protect the rest of us from horrible Governments.

Personally, I could not give a twopenny fuck what happens to Qatada. I care greatly about a Government that operates under the auspices of the law, and doesn't just decide to stamp all over individual rights when it suits their objectives. If they say he's a bad 'un, I'm inclined to agree. But my gut feeling, and the say-so of some politicians, is not a sufficient basis to condemn someone.

Try him. List your charges and give your evidence in open court. What, HM Government, are you afraid of? What are you hiding?