It began as a farce. In April 2009, the Met's then head of counterterrorism, Bob Quick, was photographed carrying classified case documents outside No 10. The papers, labelled "Secret" (like a prop from a Peter Sellers movie), revealed details relating to an investigation that Quick was overseeing at the time. Unscrupulous journalists splashed the gaffe across the front pages. The Clouseau-esque assistant commissioner resigned, muttering about the "terrific price" he had paid for his "foolish" mistake.
But the real price seems to have been paid by the 12 men arrested in the panicked swoop that followed. Working to a "revised time scale", the police hastily apprehended suspects in Lancashire, Manchester and Liverpool. Jacqui Smith, then home secretary, called it a "successful" operation; but no explosives were found and all of the men -- most of whom were Pakistani students -- were released without charge.
Among them were Abid Naseer and Ahmed Faraz Khan, both 23. They are now at the centre of yet more media hysteria, fuelled no less by the civil-liberties-averse Tories. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) has granted their appeal against deportation on human rights grounds, but has insisted that Naseer is an al-Qaeda operative and that Faraz Khan . . . erm . . . may have thought about becoming one (or, as Judge Mitting somewhat absurdly puts it, he could "safely be taken to have been willing to participate").
Siac should have deported them, says the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who insists that "protecting the public is the government's top priority". Accordingly, the Lib-Con gang is "taking all possible measures to ensure they do not engage in terrorist activity".
"Measures", for now, means control orders -- a controversial form of house arrest that takes its name from a similar programme used in apartheid-era South Africa. The orders allow the loosely defined "terror suspects" to be restricted in movement for an indefinite period of time, without charge or trial.
Writing in the Times today, Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti calls control orders "profoundly unfair and un-British"; Nick Clegg, too, denounced them in opposition. But living under the orders is preferable to the torture that could await the students, if deported.
In the wake of Siac's seemingly contradictory act of asserting the suspects' guilt while allowing them to remain in the UK, the flag-wavers have started to vent their paranoia. The Tory MP Douglas Carswell, for example, has attacked the ruling as "shocking and outrageous", citing it as a clear illustration that "human rights are not working in the national interest".
He seems to want the students hoofed out at all costs, regardless of what is right in the eyes of the world.
The reaction is hardly surprising; the Tories have long been champing at the bit to scrap the UK's commitment to the Human Rights Act, in preference of a British Bill of Rights. Chakrabarti perfectly summarises the attitude when she criticises the Tory instinct to prioritise "English liberties" over universal ones: their conception of freedom "attaches to nationality rather than humanity".
Human rights legislation must not be looked upon as an inconvenience. It is worrying that some voices among the Liberal Democrats -- who have officially described control orders as "an affront to British justice" -- seem to be echoing this reactionary sentiment. On Tuesday, the Liberal peer Lord Carlile said: "We do not want people who have been held to be terrorists walking our streets." But if they have been "held to be terrorists" in suspect conditions, surely the moral picture is clouded.
Sarah Kellas and Gareth Peirce, solicitors for Naseer and Faraz Khan, said in a statement:
The decision of Siac today in respect of the two students we represent is in fact, for them, the worst of all worlds. On the basis of secret evidence, which it refuses to disclose to the students, the court tells the world in its judgement that they are closely connected to an al-Qaeda plot to cause explosions in the UK.
The court acknowledges they have not been told why it comes to this conclusion, yet these young men have been branded publicly and thereby exposed to personal danger for the rest of their lives. Siac, moreover, refused them permission to appeal against its decision on the basis that they had "won".
This doesn't sound like British justice to me. It is hardly believable that such cases -- which make use of secret evidence, and refuse to disclose even to the suspects what makes them "terrorists" -- are being used to paint a picture of human rights GONE MAD (as the tabloids would have you believe).
Let's hope that the next five years don't lead to a free fall in the very values that define the UK: our universal rights to life and fairness.