Abu Qatada, public enemy number one, on trial by public opinion for over a decade, was last month acquitted of terror offences by a Jordanian court. The verdict was met with members of the British government and the opposition clambering to issue sound bites to the media about how vital it is that, despite being found innocent of this charge, Qatada would not be allowed back into the UK.
In one such desperate example, deputy Prime Minister and lame duck Nick Clegg has said that ‘What is absolutely clear to me is this man needed to face justice and needed to do so out of the United Kingdom and that’s what this government finally achieved.’
And despite his shameful attempt at defending the decade long campaign by the British government to deport Qatada by equating the government’s actions with justice, Clegg has unwittingly said something quite true. Qatada needed to face justice and needed to do so out of the United Kingdom – he certainly wasn’t going to face justice whilst he remained there. As Clegg said, the government has indeed finally achieved justice for Qatada by deporting him in order to face a fair trial after over a decade of attempts to unjustly deny him his freedom.
The whole fiasco was never, as the government claim, about justice. The real issue was that, if they failed to deport Qatada, the political establishment envisaged the unwashed masses, agitated by the sensationalist gutter press, lethargically marching to their local church hall to vote UKIP in the next election. The Qatada problem had captured the minds of the proles and they were annoyed. Things got political and it became a priority for the government – get rid of Qatada at all costs. The public agreed – out with Qatada or out with the politicians.
But the public’s judgement of the government’s actions had been skewed by underlying simmering prejudices which lead to the search for a scapegoat, an outlet at which the public could direct their anger and bile, a stereotype, pantomime villain type that encompasses all of what they see as wrong and ugly with Britain. The media tapped into this demand and obliged in building up such bogeymen as Qatada and Abu Hamza. Immigrant Muslims on benefits, the latter sporting an eye patch and hooks for hands for good measure, being kept in our green and pleasant land by another perpetual annoyance of the British public – European human rights laws.
Even though you would be hard pushed to find someone who has actually read up on Qatada’s views, the allegation that Qatada ‘hate’s Britain and British values’ was often erected as a façade to justify the deportation calls, yet even this was to miss the most important point of the whole affair, no matter how vile and depraved the clerics words.
Whilst there are legitimate arguments to be had over immigration, state benefits, the teachings of Islam and international human rights, in setting up this hate figure and calling for his deportation, along with the media, the British public are complicit in the political establishments attempt to erode what was until recently held as a fundamental right to all those residing in the United Kingdom. Whilst the public focused on the hate figure, under the shroud of detestation the British government did their best to circumvent the right to a fair trial.
Qatada astonishingly spent the best part of the 10 years up to 2012 at her Majesty’s pleasure despite never even being charged with any criminal offence, let alone being put on trial. Not content with this worrying and flagrant denial of basic rights of liberty which a British judge labelled ‘lamentable … extraordinary … [and] hardly, if at all, acceptable’, the British government then attempted to deport Qatada to Jordan to face trial over a terror plot despite the danger of torture being used by the Jordanian authorities to obtain evidence.
Not only did Qatada face standing trial with the use of compromised evidence but the judge reviewing Theresa May’s decision to deport Qatada to face trial in Jordan over a terrorist plot said that the evidence against Qatada was ‘extremely thin’. The Jordanian case against Qatada rested solely on the fact that he once bought a computer for another alleged terrorist. ‘If that’s the only evidence in the case’, said Justice Mitting, it’s difficult to understand on what basis… [Abu Qatada] could be prosecuted’. Despite such a damning ruling, it was the lawyers of the Home Secretary that disreputably claimed Qatada was ‘scraping the barrel’ in his attempt to avoid deportation when it was plainly apparent that it was the Government who were the barrel scrapers in their zealous case against Qatada.
After Qatada’s rights to a fair trial were secured by the UK and Jordan signing of a treaty containing assurances against torture evidence, Qatada was finally deported. With the final scene drawing to a close, our heroine, Theresa May was congratulated on finally defeating the pantomime villain, exiled to the east, never to stain our green and fertile land again. Yet, under much rejoicing from the British subjects and their news tellers, the real victor was ignored, or even blamed for delaying our home secretary’s triumph.
After the curtain falls on the tale of Abu Qatada, the audience should be leaving the Qatada Show feeling dirty and shameful. They experienced themselves screaming at the stage for the government to disregard basic human rights. In their hatred for the villain they booed and hissed at the British justice system as it, against public and government demand, stood firm and upheld the right to a fair trial. As the victorious wheels of justice turned, forcing the false heroine to sign fair trial guarantees into Qatada’s deportation treaty, in what should have been a humiliating climb down the public witnessed a home secretary and a government shamefully take credit for deporting a man they had spent over a decade attempting to illegally deny his freedom.
As the British public emerge blinking into the light, away from the seedy darkness of the media theatre that stirs up feelings of contempt and revulsion in its audience, one would hope that in the hard light of day they would see that they have acted shamefully and that Theresa May and the British government are not the heroes of this story, but are instead a real danger to our rights, not just those of the European Convention, but our British legal rights. One would hope but on the lessons of the Qatada affair, the prejudices of the people of the UK mean they will have to rely on the independence of the justice system to ensure their rights they seem so hostile against and so willing to squander.
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Benjamin Francis Owen is a regular contributor for WCIA Voices.