Nathan Busby studies Sociology at the University of Warwick.
I spent a large part of my teenage years on a sleepy housing estate on the edge of a small town. Pretty much indistinguishable from countless other sleepy housing estates on the edges of small towns. This particular estate, however, was notable for one reason; it was built to house the staff of the maximum security prison directly adjacent to it. HMP Long Lartin has been home to almost every notorious criminal in the country since it was built in 1971; the Krays and Charlie Bronson are among its most notable alumni. The latest celebrity to pass through Long Lartin’s large, foreboding gates is Abu Qatada, a man who despite having never being charged with a crime, has spent six and a half of the last ten years there, with the other three and a half under strict bail conditions.
There are many people I still keep in touch with who have had to deal with this man on a daily basis during his time at Long Lartin. Not surprisingly, sympathy for his plight is in short supply, and the only broadcastable thing that anyone has got to say about him is that he is not a very nice man. But to the best of my knowledge, being an unpleasant person is not a criminal offence in this country, and given the amount of anti-terrorism legislation we have in the UK, it beggars belief that this person has never been charged with a criminal offence. And now it appears that he is to be deported to Jordan where he has been convicted in absentia of acts of terrorism, largely thanks to evidence obtained by torture.
The UK has some of the most draconian laws against civil liberties of any comparably democratic country. The opaque nature of these ensures that in practice they can be used to contravene the most fundamental of human rights. This week Home Secretary Theresa May displayed a spectacular capacity for doublespeak when she announced that Abu Qatada’s “deportation might still take time – the proper processes must be followed and the rule of law must take precedence”. The rule of law, it would seem, is a term that can mean anything our Home Secretary needs it to mean. For six and a half years Abu Qatada has been detained without trial in direct contravention to Article 5 of The Human Rights Act of 1998. Now he is to be deported to a country that routinely uses torture as a legitimate investigative method, directly contravening Article 3 of the same act.
Why he has never stood trial, or even been charged with a criminal offence, has never been sufficiently explained. If even a fraction of things he’s been accused of in the media are true then our embarrassment of riches in anti-terror legislation should have been enough to put him away for a very long time. He is, after all, not a very nice man and his plight does not deserve one iota of our sympathy, but denying him a trial has made a mockery of our criminal justice system. Quite why the situation has played out in such a way is difficult to fathom.
A more cynical person might begin to suspect ulterior motives behind the decision not to charge Abu Qatada with a criminal offence. Cases such as his have a tendency to attract media attention. Our cynic might suspect that a government bent on reigning in civil liberties has much to gain by denying Qatada a trial and letting the tabloid media pour scorn on limp-wristed liberals who bemoan the infringement of poor Abu’s human rights. Such a move would undermine already fragile popular support for the European Convention on Human Rights, and an accusation like this would certainly fit well with Theresa May’s past form regarding the ECHR. Before we dismiss this crackpot conspiracy theory out of hand, it is worth noting that regardless of whether you think the Illuminati are at it again, or whether you think that this is just a peculiar convergence of circumstances, the results are the same.
The bluer half of this government has demonstrated on numerous occasions that it is viscerally opposed to Britain’s involvement in the European Convention on Human Rights, the only thing that mitigates the exorbitant, ad hoc anti-terrorism laws enacted by Labour during the last decade. In case anyone needed reminding, these laws, when creatively applied, can be used to justify everything from random stop-and-search tactics by the police, to internet and mobile phone surveillance, to prohibition of peaceful protests, to indefinite detention without charge, and a whole host of other democratic infringements.
Abu Qatada’s rough treatment at the hands of a Kafkaesque justice system is in no danger of getting him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination – as similar treatment has done for Bradley Manning in the US or Liu Xiaobo in China. But it is still an example of the dangerous erosion of hard-won civil liberties. It must be remembered that, for every Abu Qatada, there are countless Bradley Mannings and Liu Xiaobos who have fallen victim to a system that does not tolerate dissent, and for whom the recognition of their right to a fair trial is the very least society should afford them. Any country which wishes to call itself civilised must recognise this.