The rights and wrongs of deportation.
In trying to respond to the at times irrational prejudices and misconceptions adopted by the tabloid press, the biggest obstacles to arguing the point of the other side is just how powerful emotion and anger can be in defending if not the indefensible, then certainly the highly questionable.
So it is in trying to work out a coherent riposte to the points made both by Frances Lawrence, widow of the murdered headteacher Philip Lawrence, and to the arguments additionally made by the newspapers backing her up, regarding the decision by the Asylum and Immigration tribunal not to deport Learco Chindamo back to his country of origin, Italy. Unlike some of those who have lambasted the Human Rights Act in the past, often erroneously, Mrs Lawrence makes highly articulate points regarding the on the face of it deeply hurtful decision that it breaches his right to a family life protected under Article 8 for the deportation to go ahead. Still clearly grieving and traumatised by how the life of her husband was snatched away in such a pointless and meaningless fashion, it's difficult not to be moved by the position she finds herself in, almost 12 years' after his death. Having presumed that his removal from this country would be automatic or at the very least go through without such a struggle, all the hurt she most likely thought was over has been brought to the surface again. Her argument, that she has always supported the Human Rights Act, but that she feels that there has to be some kind of responsibility attached to it which takes into account how those who appeal under its usage have themselves acted, is one that's likely to strike a chord with many that believe that the the criminal justice system has bent over backwards for too long to protect the rights of the criminal rather than those of the victim.
All of which makes it all the more difficult to respectfully disagree with Mrs Lawrence without drifting into condescension or ridiculing her arguments. She quite clearly doesn't deserve to have all this brought up again. Firstly, the facts have to be set out as we know them. Chindamo was brought here at either the age of 5 or 6, as reports differ. Born to a Filipino mother and fathered by a Italian man linked to the mafia, he has had no contact with his dad since 1986, when his mother moved here to get away from her violent husband. He speaks no Italian, and most likely has few solid memories of life before he was brought to Britain. The only things that still link him to Italy are his passport and his parentage. He was sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison for the murder of Philip Lawrence, who died after being stabbed outside his school when he stepped in to stop a younger, 13-year-old boy from being attacked by the gang Chindamo belonged to, subsequently linked to at least two other violent crimes, although he had no involvement in either. According to his lawyers, his time in prison has changed him irrevocably, now counselling other inmates on how they themselves have ended up in jail, trying to persuade them to change their own ways. He's completed a NVQ in health and social care and plans, if and when released, to start a career in nursing. On the face of it, if his lawyers can be believed, Chindamo has been a model prisoner.
Secondly, as alluded to by other experts, and now apparently confirmed by the Guardian, the decision that he should not be deported was not just taken under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, but also as a result of recent EU legislation which governs the transfer of EU citizens between member states. Under such law, those sent home must be judged to pose a "genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat" to society as a whole, a definition that excludes nearly everyone except terrorist suspects. Chindamo may have posed such a threat at the time of Lawrence's murder, but the tribunal decided that he does not now. In addition to this, the fact that Chindamo was brought up here, that he has no real ties to Italy and cannot speak the language would mean that his right to a family life would be breached if he were to be deported.
This it seems to me is a difficult but correct decision. It differs from the cases of most of the other foreign prisoners because of how old he was when he was brought here; while they moved here for economic or other reasons once they had reached adulthood, Chindamo had no personal choice where he was taken to or lived. That he committed his crime after spending around ten years in this country, a far longer proportion of his life than he spent elsewhere, also makes him our responsibility rather than Italy's. To deport him now would be to punish him twice, forcing him to start his life over yet again. There's also no guarantee that Chindamo will even be released yet, as his minimum sentence doesn't end until next year, and he will then subject to a parole panel review. As he was sentenced to life, he will subject to recall to prison if he breaks the conditions of his parole or commits any other offence. The minimum length of his sentence should perhaps be as open to question as the tribunal decision is. Is twelve years of imprisonment a sufficient punishment for taking a life, even if committed while still a minor in the eyes of the law? We can equally argue that Chindamo has rightly had the best years of his life taken from him for his crime, but if released he will still be either 26 or 27, with most of his life still ahead of him.
According to the Sun, Mrs Lawrence has also now said the following:
“In Article 2 of the Human Rights Act my husband had the right to life.
“Chindamo destroyed that right yet he has used the legal process to enable him to live as described in Article 8.
"The Act works in his best interest. It is ill-equipped to work in my family or for people in my situation. That seems to me a major conundrum.”
It's worth pointing out that the act has not just worked in "his" best interest, but rather in the interests of anyone who feels that they have been the victim of an injustice. Just last week the the 7/7 survivors and associated families informed the government of their intention to seek a full independent inquiry, as provided under Article 2, as Mrs Lawrence refers to. Vera Bryant, whose daughter was murdered by a man released from prison, also successfully applied under Article 2 for an inquest into her death which the government had denied. As Unity also points out, although the Human Rights Act was not signed into law until 1998, after Mr Lawrence's death, justice was served, with his killer caught and imprisoned. His rights were properly served. Mrs Lawrence has said that although she has not forgiven Chindamo, she has never wished him ill, and Chindamo himself has apparently offered his sympathies to her, hoping that the decision would not cause her any additional grief. How much either of them actually mean such comments is open to question, but at least both sides seem able to forget if not forgive, something often lacking in similar cases.
It may well be that the government itself did little to prepare Mrs Lawrence for the possibility that Chindamo would not be deported, as it surely knew that there was more than a chance that such an appeal would be successful. She also raises the legitimate point that such laws don't take into account the views and appeals of those most affected by the subsequent rulings they lead to, ignoring the voices of the ordinary people they are meant to both protect and deal with. The question has to be how far though we allow the at times retributive and vengeful views of victims and those wronged interfere with justice rightly being blind; we've seen statements from the families of murder victims introduced into the courts before sentencing, do we also let the families get involved in the hearings of such appeal tribunals? Or do we have to rely that the judges' in those cases already take into account fully how they are going to be affected by their decisions?
None of this though is an argument for the repealing of the Human Rights Act itself, as Mrs Lawrence herself doesn't seem to be suggesting, although the newspapers taking up her cause, especially the Mail, are most certainly calling for exactly that, as is the Sun. The Tories, whose own plans for a "British" bill of rights which would almost certainly look more or less the same as the HRA have already been aired and dismissed by Ken Clarke as "xenophobic legal nonsense", have jumped on the case, with David Cameron already taking the rhetoric of the Sun straight on board, claiming that there is now "anarchy" in some parts of the UK, and that this is "a shining example of what is going wrong in our country". Some might argue that it's a shining example of our belief in tolerance and justice for all, in that disproportionate punishment has no more place in our society than murder itself does. David Davis, who ought to know better, also said that it was a "demonstration of clumsy incompetence" that Chindamo couldn't be sent back to his "own country". Can Italy really be called his home country when he has spent the vast majority of his life here, regardless of his crime?
However painful it is for Mrs Lawrence, for Chindamo to be treated differently simply because of the fact he has an Italian passport and committed a well publicised, heinous crime would be an injustice in itself. At times, such decisions do seem outrageous, beyond comprehension and downright wrong, ignoring the voices of those they hurt the most, but they are never taken without all the options being considered, insult to common sense as they are denounced or not. It might seem condescending to say so, but hopefully she will come to terms with the decision and respect it in the time to come, however illegitimate she thinks it is. As for the tabloids, their minds were already made up about the act, and trying to defend it time and again after all their lies, smears and distortions becomes an ever more dispiriting and difficult task. That they should take advantage once again only shows how low and dishonourable their motives are.