The case for his deportation from this country is immensely strong but the rule of law must not be tossed aside
Barring the jihadist preacher himself, there is probably not a soul in this country who thinks that Britain is a better place for the presence of Abu Qatada. The man is without question a relentless advocate of religious hate. His influence on impressionable young followers appears persistently baleful. His fight for his own human rights seems offensively at odds with his own advocacy of a worldview which would sweepingly deny such rights to others. Modern multi-ethnic, multi-faith, law-abiding Britain would be better off without him and those who think like him. As a foreign national he should not have been allowed here in the first place. The case for his deportation from this country is immensely strong.
All the same, the release from prison of Abu Qatada should be a source of something very close to relief and perhaps even a source of some pride. This is not because we have any reason whatsoever to think that he is less of a threat to this country than is often claimed – though that claim provokes the genuinely important question of why he has not been charged with or convicted of any of the many criminal offences which would seem to apply. Nor is it because we are naive about his intentions or activities. It is because Abu Qatada has spent far too much of the past decade under a system of state control that pays far too little respect to the rule of law which this country once did much to uphold.
There have been two aspects to this oppressive state control and abuse of the rule of law. The first is that Abu Qatada has been detained without trial for an unacceptably long time. Detention without trial is fundamentally at odds with the rule of law, and always has been. Yet Abu Qatada has been held for a total of more than eight years, with a six-month gap when he was on bail. Now he has been bailed, though the extraordinarily tight bail conditions under which he was eventually released from prison yesterday – a 22-hour curfew, electronic tagging and strict control on his contacts (to say nothing of the clandestine controls) – replace detention without trial with something close to house arrest.
Deportation of Abu Qatada would clearly be the better course. But the rule of law is also incompatible with the use of torture – and has been so more than three centuries. Britain would like to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan. Ideally this should happen. But that is not possible if it exposes him to the threat of torture or to a trial in which evidence obtained through torture is used. That is why the European court of human rights quite properly ruled that such a deportation was at odds with the law. A memorandum of understanding between the UK and Jordan could get round the problem if it was strong enough, as the court acknowledged. Why Britain has not worked harder to secure such a document is something of a mystery. But it is not yet the case, so the Strasbourg court rightly upheld principles which have always been upheld here too.
The rule of law matters. That is why the reaction of many Conservative politicians to the court’s Abu Qatada deportation ruling has been so shameful (Labour was not much better). They were at it again on Monday, urging Britain to behave like Italy and simply dump Abu Qatada on Jordan. But the rule of law and the upholding of treaty obligations must not be tossed aside at the instigation of Tory MPs who have become so blinded by their hatred of European institutions and their longing to be free of the Liberal Democrats that they have lost their grasp of some of the most fundamental principles of a free and just society.
The European human rights process has real defects – Kenneth Clarke set out some proposals for addressing and reforming them in a speech on Monday. That is the right course. The wrong one is to allow distaste for Abu Qatada to be an excuse for Britain throwing a hissy fit and storming out of international frameworks that uphold the vital rule of law. That would send a terrible message. Allowing Abu Qatada some freedom may not be easy, but it sends a much better message by comparison.