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Why we should not deport Abu Qatada and be damned

New Statesman

Ignoring the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights would set a dangerous precedent.

The furore over extremist Islamic cleric Abu Qatada, who was granted bail this week, has continued. Some Conservative MPs have demanded that ministers flout the European Court of Human Rights ruling that prevents the British government from deporting him. Camilla Cavendish makes the same argument in the Times (£), saying that "he has had more than his fair share of human rights."

First things first, Qatada is clearly an unpleasant man. He has been described as the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda in Europe, and is wanted in his native Jordan for plots to murder tourists. But there is no "fair share of human rights" and you certainly don't use them up by doing wrong. Quite the contrary: it is when someone has committed a crime that they are most in need of these safeguards. If there is insufficient legally obtained evidence to convict him in a court, then he should not remain in prison.

The reason his deportation has been blocked is because it seems likely he will either face torture in Jordan, or be convicted on the back of evidence obtained via torture. It is a clear obligation in the European convention on human rights that countries do not people to states where they will face torture.

David Cameron is currently seeking a deal with Jordan, but it seems unlikely that sufficient guarantees on torture will be given. So what of the suggestion that we should deport and be damned? Certainly, it is not unheard of for European countries to flout Strasbourg and expel terror suspects.

France has more than once deported suspects to countries where they face a risk of torture. In April 2008, Rabah Kadri was expelled to Algeria and has not been heard from since. He is just one example: since 2001, dozens of foreign residents suspected of links to extremism Islamic groups have been forcibly deported with little regard for their rights.

Italy, too, has ignored rulings by the European Court of Human Rights to deport several suspected terrorists to Tunisia. Sami Ben Khemais Essid was expelled in June 2008. The government even had to pay €21,000 in damages and compensation after Mourad Trabelsi was expelled in December 2008, while another, Ali Toumi, was deported in 2009.

Cavendish proudly cites these cases as examples that Britain should follow. But just because it has been done, does not mean that it should be done again, or done here. In 2007, Human Rights Watch produced a report on France's deportations of terror suspects, highlighting the profoundly damaging effect this had on France's already troubled community relations. It quoted Kamel Kabtane, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Lyon:

Kamel Kabtane agreed that the overall impact of these kinds of measures is deleterious insofar as they send the message that individuals from the Muslim community are not welcome."The more [you adopt] exceptional measures, the more you put people in a situation of exclusion.And the more you radicalize," he said. Commenting on those most directly affected by expulsions, lawyer Mahmoud Hebia concurred: "Expulsions generate families full of hatred [and] make them susceptible to pressure from terrorist groups."

Quite apart from the fact that exceptionalism of this type is counter-productive is the question of our values. Peter Oborne eloquently makes this point in today's Telegraph:

It should be a matter of enormous national pride that an institution so profoundly British in its inspiration has refused to send an Arab fundamentalist (however despicable his crimes are alleged to be) to Jordan, where he might be tortured, or at best face the prospect of being sent to jail on the back of evidence acquired from a torture victim. Yet this decision has been greeted with horror by all three of our main political parties.

Tuesday's Commons debate, in particular, was a day of shame for Parliament, once famed as the cockpit of freedom and justice. MPs combined to demand that Britain flout the European Court. Only one solitary backbencher, Labour's David Winnick, asked the obvious question: if Abu Qatada is such a bad egg, why not press charges and secure a sentence in court?

Indeed, it is particularly depressing to see Labour attacking the Tories from the right on this. Qatada is deeply unpleasant and deeply hypocritical, attacking British values while depending on human rights laws to remain here. But it remains of paramount importance to uphold the rule of law. We have already seen these values seriously eroded during the war on terror: flouting the European Court of Human Rights would be yet another step in the wrong direction.