What did Abu Qatada actually do wrong?

The Islamist's decade of detention without charge suggests the real threat to liberty is at home, not from Over There.

Luke Gittos
Columnist

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Well, thank goodness for that. Abu Qatada, terrorist extraordinaire, ‘spiritual father of al-Qaeda’, and a man who has not actually been convicted of a crime, has finally been kicked back to Jordan to face trial. He was filmed by a bleary-eyed camera crew leaving RAF Northolt in the early hours of Sunday morning, presumably to resist any allegation that the UK government had finally resolved their 11-year-long conflict with Qatada’s human rights by clandestinely catapulting him into the sea.

PM David Cameron said Qatada’s deportation was a ‘great result’; he criticised the ‘caravan’ of lawyers who held up the deportation process. He might also have mentioned the ‘Winnebago’ of courts, or the ‘people carrier’ of judges, which have kept Qatada’s legal battle in our newspapers over the past 11 years. His case has involved judgments by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Blimey! Who would have thought kicking an innocent man out of the country would have been so difficult?

As well as having illustrated his Kafkaesque approach to throwing people out of the country, Cameron’s criticism of the caravan of lawyers is incoherent, when you consider his party’s recent objections to the draconian European Arrest Warrant (EAW) regime. Earlier this year, Cameron’s government planned to reform the EAW, which allowed for people to be extradited to European countries to face trial without the need for a British court to test the strength of the evidence against them. The EAW regime means UK residents are routinely upped and shipped to other countries on the basis of flimsy evidence, and often for trivial offences. The UK home secretary, Theresa May, was forced to back down only this week on the withdrawal of the UK from the EAW scheme. In the course of her remarks to parliament, she said she would still, despite remaining in the EAW scheme, seek to incorporate ‘further protections for those facing extradition’. So, presumably defendants will at least have access to a ‘roof rack’ of lawyers, if not a ‘caravan’ – though it sounds like such protections would only apply to Europeans rather than scary bearded brown people.

The Qatada case is an indictment of the English legal system, but not because our law made Qatada’s deportation too difficult. It is an indictment because it shows how the English law can allow a man to be jailed for many years without charge or trial, with his only ‘protection’ coming from our unelected legal overlords at the ECHR.

Qatada has been held in prison and under house arrest since 2002, during which time the then New Labour government introduced various bits of anti-terrorist legislation. It was in October 2002 that then home secretary David Blunkett slung Qatada into Belmarsh prison under the now repealed part four of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. This law allowed for the indefinite detention at her majesty’s pleasure of foreigners that the government wanted to get rid of.

Qatada was released when part four was repealed in 2005, when he was placed instead under a strict control order. He was detained again in 2005 and has spent the past eight years hopping between prison and ‘bail’, which gave him his freedom in a way that was so tightly controlled that, well, he might as well have been in prison.

His case shows how the English law, following 9/11, abandoned its respect for individual rights. Traditional protections, like limits to the time you can be detained without charge, were done away with in favour of implementing rapid and stringent controls on individual liberty with as little due process as possible. The greatest irony of this period of legislative history is that it all took place under the watch of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into English law in 1998. The pen had hardly dried on New Labour’s great legislative masterwork when New Labour began doing away with almost every safeguard against draconian state authority in the book.

The Tory front bench may use Qatada’s case as a means of bemoaning the restrictions placed on state power by human-rights law, but in fact it shows the opposite. It shows that the idea of freedom engendered by Human Rights Act legislation is so diluted, so bastardised, that a man can legally spend a decade being thrown in and out of prison without being charged with any offence, while the courts rubber-stamp the whole process.

Of course, Qatada’s prolific propagation of terrorist nonsense did nothing to endear him to the British people. I doubt there will be too many tears shed about the fact that he is now back in Jordan. But if we are to learn anything from this ‘most dangerous terrorist’, this godfather of evil, it should be that the growth of human-rights legislation has prospered in an environment in which traditional freedoms come second to state control and surveillance. In years to come, after we have long forgotten about Qatada, let’s hope his case will prove to have been an exception, rather than the start of a new set of rules.

Luke Gittos is spiked’s law editor. He is also a paralegal in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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