Abu Qatada: The unanswered questions

Posted by Shami Chakrabarti on 07 February 2012

Outrage at the ruling that Abu Qatada will have to be freed on bail after nearly seven years of detention without charge is predictable. The Home Office has attacked the Special Immigration Appeals Commission’s decision, politicians have decried human rights laws and various commentators are demanding instant UK withdrawal from the European Convention.

Hyperbole and cheap shots are all-too-easy – what about the more difficult unanswered questions?


Why has Abu Qatada not stood trial in the UK?

We’re continually told he poses a grave threat to national security.Yet an entire decade after he was first detained in Belmarsh Prison, why has he still not faced criminal charges?

This is a man accused by MI5 of inciting terrorist acts during his ten years in Britain.Why hasn’t sufficient evidence against him been gathered by now?

Forget the age-old debate about why the Government won’t allow intercept evidence in criminal trials. The last time we checked incitement and soliciting murder were still very serious offences in this country. If the allegations are true he should be put in the dock without delay. But as the Attorney General has identified, we don’t believe in indefinite internment without trial in the UK and you can’t just set aside the Rule of Law and lock people up without charge instead.


So what is the problem?

Is it that pursuing Qatada in open court would embarrass the security agencies who dismissed suggestions Qatada was the “spiritual head of the mujahideen in Britain” when he arrived as a refugee in 1994 and said he wasn’t dangerous?

A trial might also revisit the uncomfortable CIA capture of two British residents in Gambia in 2002, leading to their rendition to Guantanamo. Maybe the Government previously felt deportation would avoid this awkwardness and ultimately prove “easier”. What about now?


If Jordan cannot guarantee that torture evidence won’t be used against Qatada why not try him here for crimes committed in that country?

Torture is abhorrent; its prohibition under every norm of decency at home and abroad is non-negotiable. The Court of Human Rights has shown understandable concern about Jordanian law in ruling that Qatada cannot be deported there – torture, and evidence obtained that way, is widespread. So why is the Government now pondering an appeal against the Strasbourg ruling?

Our ministers cannot champion human rights in the Arab Spring and then condone torture by persevering with attempts to expel Qatada back to Jordan. The UK asserts the right to try suspects for the gravest crimes anywhere in the world in our courts. Isn’t it time to exercise that prerogative?If there is sound untainted evidence against him Qatada should be tried in a British court. If the threat he poses is so grave surely that would be preferable to sending him back to an unsafe Middle Eastern kingdom anyway?

Politicians are very good at pleading to the “Court of public opinion” - why won’t they trust a jury of twelve ordinary people to decide this man’s case in a British court?