May 13th, 2008

Abu Qatada should stay, but not in comfort

He should be denied access to public services and if he can’t feed his children, they should be taken into care.

A red mist of rage must have descended on millions of respectable citizens last week when the Court of Appeal decided that Abu Qatada, the Jordanian Islamist, will be allowed to stay in Britain. Supposedly the right-hand man of Osama Bin Laden in Europe and the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda in Europe, convicted in absentia of terrorist offences in his native Jordan, this undesirable alien had won his appeal against deportation.
On Wednesday three judges overturned a decision by the special immigration appeals commission to deport him, saying Qatada could not be sent to Jordan because he might not receive a fair trial there: evidence that might have been obtained through torture by Jordanian intelligence services might be used against him.

Unless a final expensive appeal by the Home Office to the House of Lords succeeds, Qatada will released from Belmarsh prison in London and permitted to carry on inciting fellow Muslims at our expense. He gets about £1,000 a month in welfare benefits.

It surely cannot be right that such a man can live here with impunity, on benefits, while so many decent people are kept out or sent away. The contrast with the respectable Ghanaian woman with cancer who was recently deported to die in her own country, as she had no entitlement to National Health Service treatment, is particularly shocking.

Qatada is not British either; he does not even have a right to stay here, as the indefinite right to remain for which he applied in 1998 has never been granted and he arrived in this country on a forged Emirates passport. Yet, unlike the harmless Ghanaian, he is free to make full use of our hospitals, schools and public housing.

Fury must be the first and most powerful response. If this is the consequence of Britain’s commitment to universal human rights, there must be something wrong. I am dubious about universal human rights.

However, one does not see clearly through the red mist of strong emotions. The fundamental question, whatever one thinks of human rights in general or Qatada in particular, is whether we want to be a country that condones torture, or connives at it, or is indirectly complicit in it. I do not think so. Torture is an abomination. I cannot think of any circumstances under which British law should excuse it or overlook it or fail to protect someone from it, even if that someone is Qatada. Whether torture goes on sometimes in the extremities of war is another matter. What’s important is that the law should not condone it.

Even if one thinks a nasty end too good for Qatada and his like, the point is that we should not wound our own consciences, or corrupt our ideals of civilised behaviour, by abandoning him, or anyone, to the risk of torture. The same goes for the lesser risk of an unfair trial in a country where evidence obtained under torture may be used. That last point is the only one on which Qatada succeeded with the appeal judges and it might seem to be straining a point at that.

However, the principle holds; it is wrong for British law to wink at torture. As far as I am concerned, the international notion of human rights is irrelevant to this very British principle. If it were legally all right to throw an apparently guilty man to the lions abroad, it would then be permissible to do the same to a man who might be innocent. That would be the beginning of the end of justice in this country.

Given that, the much more difficult question is what to do with someone such as Qatada since he cannot, for the sake of our own consciences, be thrown out. The most obvious thing would be to try him here for at least some of the many offences he is supposed to have committed and lock him up for as long as possible.

It is rather mysterious that the law has recently taken away so many of our freedoms in the name of fighting terror, yet Qatada remains free to cry havoc with impunity. The Home Office does not explain in detail why he can’t be tried for anything; it mutters the usual things about inadmissible evidence and the protection of sources, but it’s unconvincing. If there are legal impediments to trying such a person in this country, they should be removed.

And there must be ways of using evidence without betraying sources.

It’s sometimes said that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service simply haven’t been bold enough. The rate of convictions in terror cases is 92%, so perhaps they should be more confident in bringing cases forward. However, if Qatada and those like him genuinely cannot be tried here, there are other things that could be done to protect the public. The first would be to deprive him, as an unwanted foreigner who would normally have been deported, of the rights and privileges of living here.

Because of his behaviour, his rights are forfeit. He should be denied benefits. He should be denied access to public services and so should his children; if he couldn’t feed them, they should be taken into care. The people of this country should not have to pay him to put themselves in harm’s way.

If Qatada claimed he was innocent of all trouble-making, as he does, he should be offered a deal; he could publicly recant all his terrorist ideas, denounce other terrorists he supposedly knows and regularly urge all Muslims to stand together against terrorism; then he would be treated as others.

If the human rights lobby protested, as it would, it should be ignored; any relevant legislation should be amended, flouting human rights agreements where necessary. Qatada was never granted any right to live here permanently. He was therefore never granted the rights of a British citizen and he shouldn’t have them.

Without all those comforts and advantages he might – who knows – leave of his own free will. In any case this would send a message, in the terrible new phrase, to other such people that Londonistan, and all that it stands for, is a thing of the past. There will be no comfort for them here.

Now that Qatada is here it is too late to say, as the Conservatives have done, that much stricter controls should be imposed on people coming into Britain. Given the state of the immigration services, that is unlikely to happen. However, we can at least make unwelcome foreigners feel unwelcome.