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 Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.