The Abu Qatada Test

Abu Qatada

Abu Qatada (also known as Omar Othman) was released from jail yesterday following a court decision to block his deportation to Jordan, where he would have faced prosecution on trumped-up charges before an unfair court on the basis of evidence obtained through torture.

This small - and perhaps temporary - victory for justice has been marred by the oppressive bail conditions placed on him, and by the disgraceful unanimity with which commentators have expressed regret at the court's decision.

The "Abu Qatada test" has replaced John Major's infamous "cricket test" as a measure of Britishness. We are all required to demonstrate our sense of belonging by joining in the irrational and racist vilification of Abu Qatada.

The consequences of this have been predictable. This morning, a caller named "Stephen" rang BBC Radio 5 Live Your Call with Nicky Campbell and threatened to kill Abu Qatada. "Stephen" claimed to be an EDL member. The threat was criminal. The danger appears to be serious and immediate. Three young children live at Abu Qatada's home. The house is easy to find - there has been a large media presence outside it. "Stephen's" call has been reported to the Metropolitan Police. They need to act urgently to trace him, arrest him and charge him.

But what about Theresa May and others, who have said so freely that want to "get rid" of Muslims targeted for deportation and extradition?

A whirligig of allegations

In all the whirligig of assertions about Omar Othman's links to Al-Qaida, the one thing missing is firm evidence of crime.

The extract below has been taken, with minor modifications, from the article Ten Years On - Internment and the erosion of civil liberties, first published by Cageprisoners on 19 December 2011 to mark the 10th anniversary of the first internments under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act.

Sheikh Omar Othman, also known as Abu Qatada, was absent from the December 2001 round-up of uncharged "terrorism suspects." He is a Palestinian scholar of Jordanian nationality and came to Britain as a refugee in 1993, having been tortured by the Jordanian authorities. In 1999 he was sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian military tribunal for his supposed role in the 1998 bombings there. In 2000 he was convicted in Jordan – again in absentia – of involvement in a further bomb plot. Evidence against him in both cases was said to have been obtained under torture. The trials proved nothing except the continued enmity of the Jordanian authorities towards Omar Othman.

Unlike the other men certified for detention without charge in Britain, Omar Othman was already a public figure when the round-up of “suspected international terrorists” began. His sermons and teachings were widely circulated and often controversial. During the 1990s he attracted attention over his support for armed opposition groups in Muslim countries, and especially for groups participating in the bloody and complex civil war in Algeria.

He was arrested by the Metropolitan Police in February 2001, and then released without charge. In October 2001 the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council blacklisted him as "being associated with “Usama bin Laden and individuals and entities associated with him." Additions to the Committee's blacklist are made by consensus amongst committee members, without any recourse to judicial process.

He featured prominently in MI5 briefings to journalists while the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill was going through Parliament. A report that a "sealed indictment" from Spain described him as Al-Qaida's "spiritual envoy" – whatever that means - appeared in the Independent newspaper. An article in the Observer newspaper claimed that he was "the prime target" of the now-defunct internment legislation. introduced after 9/11.

On 19 December, just after the dawn raids on “suspected international terrorists”, the London Evening Standard asserted that Omar Othman (referred to as Abu Qatada) would "definitely" be in the first batch of arrests. They were wrong. He had disappeared from police view (though perhaps not from MI5 view) just before internment came into force, and wasn't tracked down and locked up in Belmarsh Prison until October 2002.

>Seven years have passed since the Law Lords ruled against internment. Omar Othman is still in jail. He is in immigration detention at Long Lartin Prison, still under high-security conditions [he was released under stringent bail conditions on 13 November 2012, following a court's decision the previous day to block his deportation to Jordan]. The Home Office is seeking his deportation to Jordan, where he would be subject to an unfair trial and would be at risk of other inhumane treatment. Britain's Law Lords have already ruled that the unfair trial would not be unfair enough to block his deportation. The case is currently before the European Court of Human Rights.

In all the whirligig of assertions about Omar Othman's links to Al-Qaida, the one thing missing is firm evidence of crime. The Crown Prosecution Service was not asked to consider prosecuting Othman or any other detainee either in advance of the decision to detain them or during the years of their internment. The most straightforward explanation for this is that the Home Office doesn't like Omar Othman's teachings and political statements, that it wishes to suppress them, and that it either doesn't believe them to be criminal or doesn't care whether they are criminal or not.

Photo: UK Home Office
Abu Qatada immediately before boarding the plane that deported him to Jordan, 7 July 2013

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