Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner deplores ‘Daily Mail-scripted debate’ surrounding Islamist preacher’s case
The Islamist preacher Abu Qatada could be deported to Jordan if Strasbourg is given “watertight guarantees” he will not be tried on evidence extracted under torture, Europe’s most senior human rights official has signalled.
The cleric, who was released from Long Lartin prison this week, should alternatively face a criminal court in Britain, according to Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.
In his first intervention in the politically inflamed case since the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) prevented Qatada’s removal to Jordan, Hammarberg deplored the level of debate in parliament and accused MPs and ministers of taking “their script from the Daily Mail rather than the judgments they are discussing”.
The commissioner also warned that deporting the 51-year-old to Jordan, where he is wanted on terror charges, in defiance of the ECHR judgment would set a “bad example” and trigger a chain reaction among other states that have less respect for human rights.
Qatada has spent almost nine years in prison or under close curfew without trial in the UK.
There has been a swelling chorus among Conservative backbenchers demanding that the government ignore the judgment. “The ruling in Strasbourg is a gnat-bite that the British government is totally free in law to ignore,” the former Tory cabinet minister David Mellor has declared.
The Council of Europe, separate from the European Union, has 47 members states, including Russia and Turkey. The ECHR and the commissioner for human rights are both part of the council and work closely together.
Hammarberg told the Guardian: “I have read the discussions in the UK and know that [Qatada] is seen as a dangerous person. So I understand the heat but I’m not impressed by the arguments.
“The key point in the [ECHR] judgment in Strasbourg is torture, but it seems that the arguments have become about whether Britain should cooperate with European institutions … It seems the ministers had not even read the judgments. They mixed up the EU and the Council of Europe. It was about torture, not whether to cooperate with European institutions.
“There’s a British president of the ECHR [Sir Nicholas Bratza] … so why not discuss the matters more seriously? In parliament they seemed to take their script from the Daily Mail rather than from the judgments they are discussing.”
If the UK deported Qatada in defiance of a Strasbourg court ruling, as Italy has done to others in the past, “there isn’t really a sanction”, Hammarberg conceded. “Someone may file a complaint and there would be a judgment that there’s a violation of human rights, but it’s more the bad example.
“It would send a signal that the UK, which currently holds the chair in the Council of Europe, is ignoring [judgments] and that would be such a bad signal. There would be a chain effect.
“It would set a negative example that would be used by other countries in Europe which are less keen on human rights. It would be extremely unfortunate to ignore the ruling. It’s a serious ruling and a serious matter.”
Hammarberg suggested two solutions to the political impasse: trying Qatada in the UK or obtaining credible assurances from the authorities in Jordan, where he is wanted on terror charges.
Hammarberg suggested trying him in British courts “would be the most logical thing to do. Most politicians say there’s strong evidence against him of criminal activities … If there’s evidence that he has committed criminal activity then he should be charged [in the UK].”
Alternatively, if the Jordanian government provides plausible safeguards, Qatada could yet be deported. “There must be watertight guarantees that he should not be tried with evidence obtained under torture,” Hammaberg said. “If other evidence were used then there would be no problems with the court.”
The Home Office minister James Brokenshire has been in the Jordanian capital Amman this week seeking such additional re-assurances.
The ECHR judgment said Qatada could not be deported because evidence likely to be used in court against him had been obtained from others through torture. The Strasbourg court said it was unconvinced the legal guarantees offered so far had “any real practical value”.
“There are too many cases of people brought to court in Jordan where they have obviously been tortured,” Hammarberg said. “There’s a long line of reports from various bodies showing that torture is unfortunately widespread in Jordan.
“There’s a possibility of having a solution that would respect human rights and make it possible for him to be sent to Jordan. It needs to be more than a statement of agreement from Jordan. There needs to be some control mechanism and one model would be an observer in the trial, perhaps from the Council of Europe or someone seen as impartial.”
Hammarberg said any agreement would need to be ratified by the grand chamber, or appeal court, of the ECHR. “If the British government want to be [constructive] they should establish a system that this tainted evidence is not going to be used and then appeal to the grand chamber and it would give those agreements.”
On the issue of Qatada’s continuing close curfew, the human rights commissioner said: “This is very close to house arrest. I don’t think it should go on too long. It’s restrictive. It comes on top of years of detention.
“I do realise the problems when it comes to his actions and the leadership role he plays in extremist groups but human rights are there to be respected in all cases.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This is a dangerous man who we believe poses a real threat to our security and who has not changed in his views or attitude to the UK. We have argued for the strictest possible bail conditions to be imposed on Qatada, because this government will take all necessary measures to protect national security. This is not the end of the road and we are continuing to consider our legal options in response to the European Court’s ruling.”
from Owen Bowcott