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Published on February 20th, 2012 | by David Christie
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Image from thethrillstheyyield's photostream"]The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.  Image from thethrillstheyyield's photostream[/caption] Home Secretary Theresa May is set to travel to Jordan to continue talks on the deportation of the extremist cleric Abu Qatada.  The Home Secretary aims to obtain guarantees that evidence extracted through torture will not be used in any retrial of Qatada, who was convicted in absentia by a court in Jordan in 1999, on a charge of conspiracy to carry out bomb attacks.  Much of the media commentary surrounding this case has focused on the issue of British versus European sovereignty, and has expressed exasperation at the fact that the European Court of Human Rights is preventing us from deporting Qatada.  The debate is being framed as one about European institutions interfering in our affairs (with the ECHR frequently being confused with EU institutions, when it is in fact an institution of the Council of Europe, which is completely separate from the EU).  However, the central issue in this case, which is opposition to torture, has frequently been sidelined or ignored. Much of the media commentary has barely mentioned any concern about the dire human rights situation in Jordan, instead expressing a view on Qatada's case which goes along the lines of 'deport him anyway, and to hell with the consquences'. However, this view has a sinister implication.  If you are happy to deport Qatada, and are not bothered about the fact that evidence obtained through torture might be used in his trial, you are effectively saying that we should not care when torture is used to obtain the conviction of a suspect.  This way of thinking is potentially totalitarian, or at least amounts to collaboration with totalitarian methods. The ECHR now appears to be backtracking slightly, as Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, recently said that Qatada could be deported to Jordan as long as the ECHR is given 'watertight guarantees' that evidence extracted through torture will not be used in his trial.  However, it is unlikely that the Jordanian government will be able to offer guarantees which can truly be considered 'watertight'.  This is because the fact that a government tortures people in the first place is a strong sign that it is unscrupulous, which further suggests that it is also untrustworthy.  There is also no mention of a guarantee that Qatada will not be tortured himself, which is also a possibility. When thinking about this case we should not have any illusions about the kind of person Abu Qatada is.  He used to be described as Bin Laden's right hand man in Europe.  He is a dangerous and obnoxious extremist, and the best place for him is a prison cell.  Therefore the ideal solution would be one in which he can be imprisoned, but only after a fair trial, and in a country which has a respectable human rights record. However, if there is not enough evidence to charge him with a criminal offence, secure a conviction and send him back to prison in the UK, and if it is not possible to deport him to another democratic state instead (according to this Observer article from 2002, he is wanted by police in numerous countries including the US, France, Germany and Belgium), then there is still a question mark over what to do with him.  Should we still let him stay here, in full knowledge of how dangerous he is?  If one accepts that no human being should ever be subjected to torture, the answer is yes.  Opposition to torture is one of the most fundamental principles of liberal democracy.  We should not be willing to collaborate with torturers, even if we reduce our own security in doing so.  Furthermore, the media should recognise that this is a genuinely difficult case which involves fundamental moral principles, and stop trying to turn it into an opportunity for making a cheap Eurosceptic point.

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Opposition to torture: a fundamental principle of liberal democracy

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.  Image from thethrillstheyyield's photostream

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Image from thethrillstheyyield's photostream

Home Secretary Theresa May is set to travel to Jordan to continue talks on the deportation of the extremist cleric Abu Qatada.  The Home Secretary aims to obtain guarantees that evidence extracted through torture will not be used in any retrial of Qatada, who was convicted in absentia by a court in Jordan in 1999, on a charge of conspiracy to carry out bomb attacks.  Much of the media commentary surrounding this case has focused on the issue of British versus European sovereignty, and has expressed exasperation at the fact that the European Court of Human Rights is preventing us from deporting Qatada.  The debate is being framed as one about European institutions interfering in our affairs (with the ECHR frequently being confused with EU institutions, when it is in fact an institution of the Council of Europe, which is completely separate from the EU).  However, the central issue in this case, which is opposition to torture, has frequently been sidelined or ignored.

Much of the media commentary has barely mentioned any concern about the dire human rights situation in Jordan, instead expressing a view on Qatada’s case which goes along the lines of ‘deport him anyway, and to hell with the consquences’. However, this view has a sinister implication.  If you are happy to deport Qatada, and are not bothered about the fact that evidence obtained through torture might be used in his trial, you are effectively saying that we should not care when torture is used to obtain the conviction of a suspect.  This way of thinking is potentially totalitarian, or at least amounts to collaboration with totalitarian methods.

The ECHR now appears to be backtracking slightly, as Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, recently said that Qatada could be deported to Jordan as long as the ECHR is given ‘watertight guarantees‘ that evidence extracted through torture will not be used in his trial.  However, it is unlikely that the Jordanian government will be able to offer guarantees which can truly be considered ‘watertight’.  This is because the fact that a government tortures people in the first place is a strong sign that it is unscrupulous, which further suggests that it is also untrustworthy.  There is also no mention of a guarantee that Qatada will not be tortured himself, which is also a possibility.

When thinking about this case we should not have any illusions about the kind of person Abu Qatada is.  He used to be described as Bin Laden’s right hand man in Europe.  He is a dangerous and obnoxious extremist, and the best place for him is a prison cell.  Therefore the ideal solution would be one in which he can be imprisoned, but only after a fair trial, and in a country which has a respectable human rights record.

However, if there is not enough evidence to charge him with a criminal offence, secure a conviction and send him back to prison in the UK, and if it is not possible to deport him to another democratic state instead (according to this Observer article from 2002, he is wanted by police in numerous countries including the US, France, Germany and Belgium), then there is still a question mark over what to do with him.  Should we still let him stay here, in full knowledge of how dangerous he is?  If one accepts that no human being should ever be subjected to torture, the answer is yes.  Opposition to torture is one of the most fundamental principles of liberal democracy.  We should not be willing to collaborate with torturers, even if we reduce our own security in doing so.  Furthermore, the media should recognise that this is a genuinely difficult case which involves fundamental moral principles, and stop trying to turn it into an opportunity for making a cheap Eurosceptic point.

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