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Tuesday, February 07, 2012 

Abu Qatada: same shit, different month.

One of the problems of doing much the same thing creatively over a long period is that you can fall into the trap of repeating yourself to the point where it not only turns off those who previously paid something approaching attention, it also leaves you thoroughly dispirited with how you can't seem to get out of the same old routine. While this is obviously not a problem for Liam Gallagher, and with slight modification seeming repetition can in fact launch an institution (see Private Eye, The Fall, George A. Romero), it's not quite the same with politics and commenting on it. I'd go so far to say that it's only in politics that quite so many otherwise dead subjects can be resurrected, whether because they never go away, or due to how they can be reanimated and gone over yet again, the same arguments rehashed and then ignored just as they were the last time.

So it is with Abu Qatada, the hirsute Islamic fanatic everyone loves to hate. It seems only last month that we were discussing why he should or shouldn't be deported for the umpteenth time, because it, err, was. It would be nice to think that the topic has been done to death: the government of whichever hue convinced of its righteousness in trying to deport him back to Jordan, with those few on the other side quietly pointing out that we could have avoided all this palaver had we attempted to put him on trial here in the first place, rather than sending him back into the welcoming arms of the authoritarian state he fled from. We did after all grant him asylum back in the care-free 90s, unconcerned as we were then of the phantom of exploding Muslims. Why, even those happy spooks in residence at Thames House believed they had him in their pocket, and that he wouldn't do anything to harm the state that had given him shelter.

Reacting though with weary resignation to Qatada's imminent release on "bail", if you can call a curfew of 22 hours bail, simply wouldn't suffice. We must instead go through the same cycle of outrage as last time, whether it's the Sun's take on the matter, with "evil Qatada sniggering at our humiliation and weakness", or the home secretary saying it "simply isn't acceptable" that he can't be deported, despite our diligence in attempting to ensure he won't be mistreated. It doesn't seem to matter that the danger from Qatada, such as it is, isn't that he will personally launch an attack: it's rather than he's provided theological guidance and motivation to jihadists in the past, and given the opportunity possibly will again. This makes the threat he poses under a 22 hour curfew, accompanied by surveillance, a tag and a ban on anyone visiting him who doesn't receive Home Office approval almost negligible. If anything he probably poses more of one where he currently is in HMP Long Lartin, where he can at least mix with the other detainees in the special immigration unit being held in similar circumstances to his (PDF), hardly improving the chances of any of the men having a change of heart over their extremist views.

It also doesn't matter that as Qatada's lawyer Gareth Pierce pointed out, he has been under both a control order and similar bail conditions previously, and on neither occasion was it found that he had breached those terms. He was taken back into custody the last time purely on the grounds of "national security reasons" which could not be disclosed, having embarrassed the government by shopping in broad daylight for kitchen roll and Diet Coke. Even if it turns out that the government can't reach agreement with Jordan over evidence potentially derived from torture being used against him, and the most likely outcome on that score seems to be Jordan dropping proceedings against him altogether, it hardly means he's going to be free to do whatever the hell he feels like: a TPIM, the coalition's replacement for control orders is only very slightly less rigorous.

There is a very obvious double standard at work here: regardless of what British citizens are accused of, we would refuse to send them to a country to face trial where the death penalty would definitively be sought should they be found guilty. Likewise, the outcry would be massive should the evidence they face be potentially tainted by or even be wholly the product of torture, as the ECHR has ruled in Qatada's case. You only have to look at the example of the Natwest Three, where a high profile and incredibly misleading PR campaign was launched on their behalf to see the difference when it's "our criminals" that are being sought. Despite all the scaremongering, they were back here within four years of their deportation. By comparison, and without being convicted of any crime here, Qatada was described today in parliament by the home secretary, however obliquely, as a terrorist.

As sympathetic as I am to the well articulated points of Michael White, who reasonably sets out why we have discharged our responsibilities to Qatada and indeed other non-citizens who attempt to avoid deportation to potential justice in a similar fashion, it remains the case that the whole venture has been doomed from the start. It's been a well established point of law for a long time now that you cannot deport someone back to a country where they will face the threat of mistreatment or a trial where the evidence is likely to be based on mistreatment; the House of Lords surprisingly overturned Qatada's successful court of appeal bid on that score, so it was always likely that his subsequent appeal to the European Court would succeed. Richard Norton-Taylor suggests that this whole course was supposedly chosen on the grounds that it would be easier than taking him through the courts, even though evidence of his extremist preaching, potentially amounting to inciting racial hatred, murder or terrorism is available.

Distasteful as it is that we should have dedicated such efforts and expense in protecting the rights of a man who would presumably like to see the imposition of Sharia law, this is exactly what makes us democracies. To steal wholesale from a comment posted by GuyStevenson on Eric Metcalfe's piece at the Graun, quoting
Aharon Barak, former head of the Supreme Court of Israel:

This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual's liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and its strength and allow it to overcome its difficulties.

It might save some time to remember this when we do have to put Qatada under that less strict regime. Except, of course, we won't.

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