Why we should not deport Abu Qatada and be damned

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.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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