Friday, April 11, 2008

Joan Bakewell: Abu Qatada's leave to stay is a human right too far

It is the reason why they come here, of course. People of evil intent who propagate pernicious doctrines of hate and issue videos and calls for violent action are aware that our legal system offers them as good a chance of fair treatment as they will get anywhere in the world.
Our laws, built up over centuries and subject to constant revision and scrutiny, offer one of the most sophisticated constructs of argument, case history and systems of appeal, enacted by honourable lawyers who cannot be swayed by bribery or intimidation. That may sound a little rose-tinted. And there are always cases of misjudgment and bad law simply because no human system is perfect. But I would rather be on the wrong side of the law here than almost any other country. And so would many would-be terrorists.
I'm glad it is so, and that we hold out to the world an example of justice enshrined in law, as fine as we can make it. But it does make us a target for ill-wishers who, like many anarchists and rebels before them, find in Britain's painstaking procedures a place to drag out and prolong their claims to justice. And justice they should have. Law must be available and dispensed with as much care and consideration for people we don't like and don't want as for everyone else.
Abu Qatada – often referred to as Osama Bin Laden's ambassador in Europe – has won a court battle to stay in this country. The Home Office wanted to deport him back to his home country of Jordan, where he has been found guilty in absentia of a series of crimes. He arrived in Britain in 1993 on a forged United Arab Emirates passport, was given refugee status in June 1994 and leave to remain in June 1998. He went on the run after 11 September 2001, but was arrested in December of that year and has been held in custody ever since.
It would be fair to say he does not wish this country well: there are videos of him inciting violence again the enemies of Islam, there is knowledge of his links to terror cells in Spain and Frankfurt. The chairman of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) declared: "The appellant was heavily involved, indeed was at the centre in the UK of terrorist activities associated with al-Qa'ida. He is a truly dangerous individual." The SIAC considered we should rely on assurances from Jordan.
If we pride ourselves on a scrupulous attention to the law, then we also have to consider how seriously we take these Memorandums of Agreement. These are formal agreements drawn up under Tony Blair's anti-terrorist policies, with three countries: Jordan, Lebanon and Libya. They deal with the error this country would commit if it returned individuals to countries where it is known or conjectured they would be subject to torture. This is rightly forbidden under human rights legislation.
The memorandums, however, declare that signatory countries undertake not to torture, in the process of bringing returned individuals to justice. The Court of Appeal has just decided that such memorandums are worthless and in the light of that opinion are allowing Abu Qatada to stay here. It is a a decision that has to be called into question. Either these memorandums were agreed, signed and accepted, or the whole nature of such deal-making is declared pointless.
The fuss over this man's right to stay in the country is all the more surprising considering how many and how often otherwise worthy and innocent people are returned to their country of origin.
Earlier this year, Ama Sumani, a 39-year-old Ghanaian, was deported home even though she was undergoing treatment for cancer, a treatment that would not be available in Ghana. Friends protested and saved money to help her. But their pleas went unheard. She was returned home and died in Accra alone and friendless just a month ago.
There are other stories to wring the heart: Iraqis now being sent back because it is judged that life in Iraq has improved. Any one of these individuals would make a better humanitarian case for remaining here than Abu Qatada.
Justice and the law are not identical entities. But when they are seen to be grossly divergent, then the country is not well served. People reading of Ms Sumani's sad death and Abu Qatada's permission to stay must wonder how such differences came about. She lost out and he remains. That just isn't fair.


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