In harm's way: Abu Qatada

Is Omar Mahmoud Othman, otherwise known as Abu Qatada al-Filistini (or simply Abu Qatada) a dangerous man?

This seems to be the general presumption (his BBC profile from 2007 runs through the main accusations commonly made about him). People like former Home Secretary David Blunkett have denounced him (and indeed under Blunkett’s Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 Abu Qatada was one of those held without trial at Belmarsh prison. It’s worth adding that the detentions were eventually ruled unlawful by the House of Lords).

My view on Abu Qatada’s dangerousness is … well, I don’t know. The important thing here is assessing evidence, not hearsay or even public “good deeds” (he previously called for the release of British hostages Norman Kember and Alan Johnston) which could after all be PR stunts. This is not a “good character” test, it’s a matter of the law and human rights.

Today's decision by the European Court of Human Rights is a mixed bag. On the one hand it says that sending Abu Qatada to Jordan would be a violation of his right to a fair trial given, as the judgement said, “the real risk of the admission of evidence obtained by torture at his retrial”. Yes, we’re back to that issue – courts potentially using “evidence” extracted under torture. On the other hand, it said the “diplomatic assurance” deal between the UK and Jordan was acceptable, a worrying decision that Amnesty’s Julia Hall has condemned as “an alarming setback for human rights”.

If you strip away the rhetoric and politics, what does this case really boil down to? Surely, in human rights terms, it’s about whether it’s ever acceptable for countries to make cosy deals to circumvent the international torture ban.

Think about the logic of this. Why is the UK signing deals with countries with a known record of mistreatment? (Rule of thumb: if you need an extra no-torture “assurance” in the first place, maybe you shouldn’t be seeking to send people to such an uncertain fate ….). Taken to an extreme, this “co-operation” between nations leads to the extremely murky business of the UK’s apparent involvement in the rendition of Libyan nationals back to the Gaddafi regime.

Amnesty has previously fingered the UK as the worst offender in Europe when it comes to diplomatic assurances. This kind of deal-making sends a very troubling message of disrespect for human rights – treating rights like some kind of obstacle a nation has to be crafty enough to sidestep. Principles are principles, the law is the law. If someone – anyone – is tortured because we sent them to another country when there is good reason to think this was the likely outcome, then the UK will have blood on its hands (you can’t just wash your hands of people like Abu Qatada, it’s a Macbeth-type situation: the blood sticks). Quite simply, we should not be putting people in harm’s way.

So, by all means, the UK authorities should keep Mr Othman under surveillance if they think it necessary. And amass evidence and seek to put him on trial if there are reasonable grounds for doing so. (Or extradite him in the usual way if another country can put him on trial in fair circumstances). Bringing him to justice is not only desirable, but necessary if the evidence exists. But to be clear – what the UK should not be doing is signing dangerous deals that undermine the international ban on torture (a ban in the interest of every British citizen as well as every Jordanian national).

The European Court’s ruling said the deal between London and Amman “had been approved at the highest levels of the Jordanian Government, with the express approval and support of the King himself”. Maybe, but as we’ve recently seen, governments in the Middle East and North Africa are not there forever. Who’s to say a future Jordanian government would honour this deal? And let’s not forget, the UK has been fixing up these shoddy deals with other countries as well – Ethiopia, Morocco, Lebanon, Libya (since struck down by the courts) and an “exchange of letters” arrangement with Algeria.

If I was deported with the equivalent of “Do not torture this man” stamped on my passport – I’d be worried. So would you.

 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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