The biggest problem with Qatada? He’s innocent
Abu Qatada has been incarcerated for nine years, and not once has he been found guilty of anything illegal.
Nothing can reduce the British state to a jibbering wreck quite like a suspected terrorist. Following the decision of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission to release Abu Qatada, who is known by the Home Office as the ‘spiritual leader of al-Qaeda’, the message from the government was very clear: be afraid, be very afraid.
Ministers fell over themselves to tell us how scary this portly preacher was. Home secretary Theresa May called Qatada a ‘very dangerous terrorist’. Former security minister Hazel Blears said we should be ‘horrified’ at the prospect of Qatada being on the streets. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the government should ‘strain every sinew’ to have Qatada deported.
There is one fact about this case which gives this fearmongering its sinister edge: Abu Qatada is an innocent man. In England, we assume people are innocent until proven guilty. Even after monitoring him for a quarter of a century, the authorities have not gathered enough evidence to charge Qatada, let alone have him convicted. The government says that it cannot bring a case against Qatada because all the evidence against him is based on information obtained by the UK intelligence services, but this hardly stands up to scrutiny when you consider the threshold for proving incitement is low. If you can convict someone for setting up a Facebook page, as two young men were following the riots in England last August, it beggars belief that there is no case against Qatada if he is anywhere near as ‘dangerous’ as the government says he is.
Despite his innocence, the British state has spent nine years straining sinews to keep Qatada locked up. The history of his case is a primer on draconian New Labour anti-terror legislation. In 2002 he was detained under the Crime and Security Act 2001, which allowed for suspected terrorists to be indefinitely detained without charge. He had to be released when that act was repealed in 2005 and was instead made subject to a control order, another piece of New Labour legal handy work, which allowed him to be kept under house arrest. He could then be returned to prison in 2005, under new powers which allowed for the detention of those facing deportation. To date, he has effectively served a nine-year prison sentence. It is a perverse irony that had he actually been convicted of terrorism offences in 2001, he would almost certainly have been released by now.
The legal framework that was designed by New Labour after 9/11 to deal with people like Qatada was a disaster for defendants’ rights. To get an idea of how these laws work, it is worth thinking about how Qatada himself will be experiencing these proceedings. He will see none of the evidence against him. He will be prevented from attending any hearings, which will also be closed to the public. He will be represented by a ‘special advocate’ who he will not even have met. This advocate will represent his interests only in law: Qatada’s account of himself, his case, is irrelevant. When it comes to terror suspects, the principle that defendants and society at large should not only have justice done, but should also see justice being done means nothing. These suspects are not treated in court like human beings with their freedom at stake, but as administrative inconveniences, discussed only in the abstract and worth little more than the letter on one side of the judgement.
Despite having half of the statute book named after him, it is a further irony of this case that Qatada’s fate has not been determined by English law, but by the judges of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They overturned the ruling of the house of lords that Qatada could be deported because of safeguards that the UK government had brokered with the government of Jordan. The Qatada case joins a long list involving political as well as legal questions, which have been dutifully delegated by the British state to unaccountable judges on the continent. But if you think that the European court has done a good job of safeguarding Qatada’s liberty it is worth bearing in mind that the same court decided that Qatada’s initial detention without charge in 2002 was perfectly lawful. An unaccountable, undemocratic institution that condones throwing people in jail for no reason is hardly a bastion for liberty.
So what has Qatada actually done to make courts across the world bend over backwards to keep him inside? He was convicted in Jordan, in his absence, of a conspiracy to blow up an American school and a hotel in Amman. However, Qatada convinced the European court to prevent his deportation by arguing that were he to face trial in Jordan there was a real risk that the case against him would include evidence obtained by torture. In this country, he has become known as the ‘spiritual leader of al-Qaeda’ by publishing Islamist propaganda and expressing support for bin Laden. Yet despite many attempts to do so, the authorities have not been able to link him directly to specific terrorist activity, either in the UK or abroad.
So, in reality, Qatada is what George Orwell may have called a thought criminal. He has spent a decade behind bars for thinking and occasionally saying the wrong thing. After all his tussles with the courts in the UK and on the continent, one truly frightening fact has emerged: that the English legal system, with its purported respect for freedom and due process, has allowed an innocent man to be incarcerated for nine years. This is far more frightening than anything said or done by the bearded weirdo himself.
Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.
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