The price of liberty

 
 

With the recent legal confusion following the release of Abu Qutada on bail, Evan O’Quigley casts a critical eye on how the West has responded to international terrorism

With all of Britain trying to figure out who exactly to blame for the disaster that has arisen since Abu Qutada, a radical jihadist cleric, has been set free on bail, without being extradited to his home-country Jordan, or properly being put on trial in the United Kingdom, the country has been in upheaval for the past month over this issue.

The Guardian wrote earlier this month of this situation: “Government ministers blame the courts. The courts blame ministers. The Daily Mail and the Tory right blame Europe. Labour, as usual, blames the government. The police blame the lawyers. Much of the population blames the lot of them. In our view, much of the population is closest to the mark”. This is probably true to say.

The handling of this case has been a disaster, as has the handling of terror suspects, convicted and non-convicted, over the past decade. Over this decade, we’ve witnessed the muddled responses to acts of terror by Western governments.

Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-born Jordanian, who is believed to have had close connections to Osama Bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda figures, was set free on bail after a ten-year court battle. Qatada was first imprisoned in Britain in 2002 under recently brought in anti-terrorism laws due to his alleged connections to al-Qaeda, but was never given a fair trial or officially prosecuted for any criminal or conspiracy offence.

The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 was formally introduced into the parliament of the United Kingdom, just two months after the September 11th attacks on the United States, which had brought the fear and threat of terrorism to the international stage. The act itself was heavily criticised at the time for bringing in draconian measures, which would be a threat to the liberty of British citizens, much like the US PATRIOT act, brought in at much the same time, which too has been accused of attacking the civil liberties of American citizens since 9/11.

Should Qatada be sent back to Jordan, he would be subjected to imprisonment, having been  twice by his home country of Jordan, in abstentia (meaning while he was not physically available to be prosecuted), for conspiracy to carry out terrorist attacks, and for plotting to bomb tourists visiting Jordan for millennium celebrations, before he was first imprisoned in Britain in 2002.

Despite this, a British judge has refused so far to extradite Qatada to Jordan. The countries extradition policy itself is extremely unclear. Lately, there have been a great number of extradition cases, only some of which ultimately resulted in any extradition, while some have not as of yet. Home Secretary, Teresa May, has called the judge’s ruling ‘extremely unsatisfactory’ adding that the government have lobbied for the removal of Qatada for years, and done “everything it could to get rid of him”.

Just like the US, Britain has had extreme difficulty with balancing civil liberties and decisions of national security. There is also fear that should Abu Qatada be sent to Jordan, he would be subjected to torture, which according to the organisation Human Rights Watch is rife within the Hashemite Kingdom.

It is perhaps because of these ambiguities in the law regarding anti-terrorism measures that Britain has found them in this situation in the first place. Had Britain granted him a fair trial in the first place and sentenced him properly, there would be no reason for the European Court of Human Rights to rule that he had been unfairly detained, thus giving rise of the terrorists types the feelings of injustice and giving them sympathy. This also weakens the position of the West, making nonsense of the claim of superior human rights laws and a greater sense of justice.

Those on the right argue that it’s not important that we read terrorists their rights, but doing things fairly and justly has always been the Western way. After the Second World War, the US and Britain didn’t just bomb and detain anyone who vaguely seemed suspicious of being a Nazi collaborator, as has been done with suspected jihadists. Instead the Nuremburg trials took place, which showed that the forces of democracy and justice will always triumph authoritarian and anti-democratic forces. Since 9/11 this has not at all been the case.

This is why there are places like Guantamo Bay, filled with terror suspects, the vast majority of whom have not been given any sort of trial. In order to beat the terrorists, the West has acted not much better either. The post-9/11 fear society has also led to the detaining of innocent people, including five Muslim detainees from China’s western Xinjiang province, who have had no connections to terrorism, and have done no wrong. It seems as in a rush of jingoism and seeking revenge following the September 11th attacks the West forgot about these principles that allowed the free world to stand out. This latest case of the legal ambiguities surrounding the case of Abu Qatada only shows that overall that ignoring proper legal procedures have negative consequences, and ultimately cause more problems than they solve.

There’s a great speech at the end of Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator when the titular character, General Aladeen, in criticising democracy in favour of the authoritarian dictatorial rule prevalent in some middle-eastern states argues: “You could wiretap phones, you could torture prisoners, you could have rigged elections, you could lie about why you go to war, you could fill your prisons with one particular racial group and no one would complain,” seeming not to know that the US post-9/11 has done all of these things to some extent. One can only hope to avoid future legal abnormalities and miscarriages of justice, as we have seen this month, the West will get its act together, and renew our democracies.

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