Abu Qatada: will no-one rid me of this turbulent cleric ...?

… might well be what the Home Secretary Theresa May thinks about Abu Qatada after yet another round of media scrutiny of her decision-making in the case.

Naturally no politician wants to suffer sustained public criticism of their judgement and/or competence. She’s undoubtedly sick of this matter and wants it to end. After weeks of jokes about her time-keeping skills and whether she knows what day of the week it is, she’ll undoubtedly be relieved that her temporal inaccuracy hasn’t been crucial as the European judges have in any case refused to refer the case for further scrutiny (see Adam Wagner’s post on the timing issue if you’re especially interested in this aspect).

So with face saved Ms May has been able to look forward, announcing she’s confident that the government will soon “be able to put Qatada on a plane and get him out of Britain for good.” OK, let’s pause there. Aside from troublesome timings and doubtful deadlines, where are we now in this case and what’s important about it?

The European Court of Human Rights judges’ decision yesterday means that the court’s ruling in January stands. The ECHR in January had accepted that “diplomatic assurances” from the Jordanian government that Abu Qatada would not be ill-treated if he were deported to face trial there were good enough to outweigh concerns expressed by his lawyers that he could indeed be tortured if returned.

End of story? Not quite. In January the ECtHR had also ruled that there was a “real risk of the admission of evidence obtained by torture at his retrial” and said it would be unlawful to deport him to this fate. It was an important “Article 6” fair trial ruling. In the words of the court’s own press release, it reflected an “international consensus that the use of evidence obtained through torture makes a fair trial impossible”. Since then the UK and Jordanian governments have reportedly worked out another agreement - more diplomatic “assurances” - over Abu Qatada getting a fair trial. It will now be a question of whether the UK courts (and potentially the European Court again) accept the veracity and reliability of these new assurances.

In a post in January I laid out the basic human rights position about the growing use of these government-to-government deals and how they’re a dangerous road to go down. Please have a read. And also think about this for a moment: deals with countries known to use torture and put people through unfair trials - what could possibly go wrong? (Or put it this way: how much faith would you place in a country that signs international treaties banning torture and then does almost nothing to stop it happening? What country is this? Yes, Jordan).

Yesterday Amnesty issued a very good four-page briefing on the prevalence of torture in Jordan and the systematic unfairness of the country’s quasi-military State Security Courts (which would very likely try Abu Qatada if he were sent to Amman). The briefing points out that the two people likely to provide evidence against Abu Qatada (men called Al-Hamasher and Abu Hawsher) are in the extremely vulnerable position of having themselves been tortured, convicted of serious crimes and then pardoned and now brought forward as the supposedly key witnesses in any future Abu Qatada trial. Improper? Yes. In fact, bluntly, the whole thing stinks.

Back in Britain there’s an unpleasant quality to some of the public debate about Abu Qatada. On the one hand the “preacher of hate” label is used repeatedly by all and sundry but it’s still the case that the UK authorities have never sought to put him on trial for breaching any laws in this country. Has he actually broken any - and if so why hasn’t he been prosecuted? Important questions that hardly ever get asked.

Meanwhile, some newspaper headline writers and commentators have again jumped on yesterday’s decision to talk gleefully about giving Abu Qatada “the boot” and “kicking him out”. Leaving aside the jokey-but-still-violent imagery (not very sensitive in a case where torture is a key issue), it’s worth reiterating what’s actually at stake here. It’s very simple. It’s a matter of assessing whether it’s ever right to send people - anyone, no matter who they are or what they’re accused of - to face a significant risk of being tortured or unfairly jailed. Instead of sticking the boot in, the anti-Qatada brigade ought to say why they think an unenforceable deal with a country that tortures people and locks them up after unfair trials is worth taking seriously.

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