The Abu Qatada Saga has been in the news again recently for allegedly breaking his bail conditions. We are talking, in case you were wondering, about the Palestinian-Jordanian Islamic cleric resisting extradition to Jordan, not Abu Hamza, with whom he is often confused, who has hooks for hands and has already been extradited to the United States. Here is a helpful story from the Express about his use new sporks.
The media love calling Qatada’s case a ‘saga’ because it has dragged on, and as far as they’re concerned, saga means ‘long story’. The story of Qatada’s time in dear ol’ Blighty has certainly been long…
[Skip to black script ‘So yes’ if you are well-informed]
Qatada has been here since 1994, having been expelled (along with most Palestinians) from Kuwait during the first Gulf War, and having fled Jordan. He arrived as an asylum seeker (boo?) claiming he had suffered religious persecution and been tortured in Jordan, and was admitted with refugee status.
As a Salafist (strict/puritan Sunni) alim (legal scholar) he taught in London, notably calling for the executions of various groups (apostates and their families, Jews, those oppressing Chechens) and publicly supporting Osama Bin Laden’s right to issue fatawa. When videos of his sermons were found amongst the possessions of 9/11 hijackers, the UK government manoeuvred to arrest him, which they managed in 2002, having already been forced to drop charges of links to a German terror cell for lack of evidence.
He was held in Belmarsh. In the meantime, he was convicted of terrorism in absentia in Jordan. Since there wasn’t enough evidence to try him for UK crimes, he was released on strict bail in 2005, at which point wheels set in motion to send him to Jordan. He was arrested again. Whilst in prison, he made an ‘appeal for clemency video’ supporting the human rights activist held by terrorists in Iraq.
Eventually in 2008 the Court of Appeal rule he cannot be extradited as evidence obtained through torture may be used against him. He was bailed but had to remain indoors 22 hours per day. November 2008 he was arrested again for fear he’d run away, and his bail was revoked by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. In February 2009, the Law Lords (then the highest UK court) ruled in favour of the government’s wishes, arguing Jordanian assurances not to use torture-evidence could be trusted.
Meanwhile the European Court of Human Rights awarded him the whopping figure of £2,500 since he’d been held without charge for some seven years. The ECHR (which is superior to all UK courts) followed this up in 2012 by ruling he could be deported, but not so long as “there remains real risk that evidence obtained by torture will be used against him.” He got bail again (13 Feb) but was rearrested (17 April) for his extradition.
This was because Theresa ‘numerate’ May thought a) there was no ‘real risk’ and b) Qatada had missed the 3 month deadline to appeal to the ECHR. He hadn’t, he appealed and everyone laughed at Terry. He lost this appeal in May (irony?) and was refused bail by SIAC since the Olympics were coming. He took the bail appeal to the High Court, and lost there too. In November, however, he won an appeal to SIAC that he (still) wouldn’t get a fair trial in Jordan. He got bail again, again on hyper-restrictive conditions. Terry called this “deeply unsatisfactory” and presumably burnt some puppies and baby rabbits. Witchcraft worked for her, and the government was given the right to appeal SIAC’s decision in December.
As might be expected, the rightwing press is frothing at the mouth so much one might assume they were collectively bitten by rabid vampire bats. This froth spilled over like a phlegm-tinged wave of grubbly dribble across countless red chins when the cost of Qatada’s case, £515,000, emerged. This February the High Court kindly prevented such spittlemongers from protesting outside the Qatada household, where his wife and four children live.
On 9th March (Saturday) Qatada was arrested again, on the as-yet unheard charge of breaching his bail conditions. The government’s case at the Court of Appeal (against SIAC’s ruling) began yesterday (11th).
So yes, if one were to write a novel concerning “The Life and Travails of Abu Qatada”, it would be fair to describe it as a ‘long story’.
But ‘saga’ means much more than that. Sagas were tales in Old Norse that focused on the battles and troubles that led to a contingent of Norsemen voyaging to Iceland, setting up a new king-less community, and that community’s teething troubles. Rather like an epic version of Aesop’s Fables, they explicitly examined what it was to be a ‘worthy man’ and what values and actions clan-families should uphold. So if sagas are morality tales, what can we learn from Abu?
It’s worth acknowledging here that he is almost certainly a dangerous man. I’m no expert – I doubt anyone outside the intelligence services is – but the little evidence that is verified suggest he is a pretty nasty bugger.
It is precisely because Qatada is such a nasty man that I’m so happy he’s still here. The government, with the majority support of the press and the people, has every reason to want to get rid of him. He is expensive, he is filled with hate, he seems to call for the violent destruction of our society and might have made large moves to fulfilling that wish. But it would be illegal for us to deport him, and we haven’t.
That’s what’s great. When Labour came into power, and when the Tories came into power, the UK was a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and a member of the Council of Europe (which, fyi, is not an EU body). Both governments, by allowing appeals to the ECHR and respecting their rulings, indicated acceptance of that court’s primacy in this case. Whatever measures of questionable morality the government used against him (detention without trial under Labour’s ACTSA; Draconian bail conditions), the governments have respected the laws they signed up to.
Terry is now talking about withdrawing from the ECHR. This would not be a crying shame. This would be a bawling, wailing, nose-running, weeping, cuddle-up-in-bed-hugging-your-pillow-and-occasionally-punching-the-matress shame. The reason for this is this: it would be moving the goalposts mid-game. It would be ignoring the principles of the law this country subscribes to, most explicitly. For the sake of saving a little money, we would be turning our backs on the opinions of UK and European legal professionals who believe a man may be wrongly convicted, and turning our backs on the rule of law.
Allow me a historical illustration. In England, the 1650s were a chaotic time. The decapitation-happy end to the Civil Wars had created national power-vacuum, in which novel takes on government and religion sprung up. One of these religions was Quakerism. Quakers, unlike the Friends of today, were quite a rowdy bunch, convinced of their own rectitude and fond of storming into more traditional churches and shouting about God.
Naylor was particularly uppity, and in 1656 he (allegedly) rode into Bristol on a donkey whylst a crowde of believing women cryed Halleluijah. This imitation of Christ caused uproar among the Protestant majority, and he was soon arrested and brought before the highest court in the land: Parliament. The charge was Blasphemy. However, the House could not pass an Act of Attainder (which would allow most punishments and an execution) because the House of Lords had been dissolved. Back in 1653 the Rump Parliament had passed the Blasphemy Act, but that only had a maximum penalty of three months’ imprisonment, and no corporal punishment. After debating this for some time and interrogating Naylor, the House resolved that it could act in a judicial capacity alone, created a new crime, ‘Horrid Blasphemy’, and convicted Naylor for that. It was resolved that:
“James Naylor shall be put in the pillory in the city of Westminster for the space of two hours, on Thursday next, and then be whipped by the hangman through the streets from Westminster to the Old Change, and there be put in the pillory again from the hours of eleven to one on the following Saturday. He shall then have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron, and be branded with the letter B, and sent to Bristol, where he shall be paraded through the city on horseback, with his face backward. From Bristol he shall be brought back to London and sent to the Tower, there to be kept to hard labour by order of Parliament, and be debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and have no relief but what he can earn by his daily labour.” (Guyborn Goddard’s Diaries)
Besides the bare facts of Naylor’s torture, why is this ‘ex post facto’ (after the act) legislation terrifying?
Because it means nobody can be safe, at any time, doing anything. If Parliament can change the laws, including the punishments, the possible charges, and the courts allowed to try you, after your crime/act or even during proceedings against you, you can be convicted of anything and punished in any way.
The fact that most people hate Abu Qatada, and would positively love to see him deported, yet he has not yet been, is a testament to the laws and due observance the UK holds.* This is why, for example, the Nuremberg Trials used Nazi-era law, not the kind of laws everyone would have liked to totally nail the fuckers, several of whom got off jolly lightly.
The other element to this case, which I hope I don’t need to labour, is that Abu Qatada has not been found guilty of anything in this country. It seems amazing that we cannot try him for his multiple alleged Al Qaeda links, terrorist activity, incitement of hatred and so on – but given the actions of numerous Home Secretaries and DPPs, we obviously aren’t confident that he’d get a conviction.
In that case, under the eyes of English law, he is innocent.
So we would be sending an innocent man to a country in which he has been tried without being able to defend himself, where he claims he was tortured, and that evidence derived from torture may be used against him. Despite multiple promises from the Jordanian Government, UK courts are not yet satisfied that these elements will not come into play, in which case to deport him would mean knowingly risking injustice.
Torture is not a good way to get evidence. Here is Gracie May talking about it better than I can. And Christopher Hitchens. And here’s a charming video (with good discussion of the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario and Khalid Sheik Mohammad).
As they argue, and I am quite convinced, evidence derived from torture is worthless. That’s why the ECHR is so touchy about it. And why I’m happy that we’re currently in the ECHR.
I hope the story of Abu Qatada will be a true saga, one we can tell our grandmites around the hovercar/dystopianlandscape/utopianlandscape/muchthesamelandscape. I hope we will be able to point to a man so probably-evil, so unprovedly-vile, and say “Here is an example of good honest leaders. Our government kept to the rules. Our government did not act like despots. Our government is just.”
If we leave the ECHR before this case is resolved, it could still be a saga, of course. Only this time, it would be an example of grasping paranoia, duplicity and folly on the part of the Establishment.
*I know the UK has not been perfect in observing these regarding all extraditions. We’ve extradited people to be tortured in loads of situations. It would be the more bare-faced sickness to use that as a justification for extraditing Abu Qatada too. It would be a tu quoque argument – because everyone does something does not make it OK.