Thursday, May 8, 2008
Abu Qatada refuses to be written out of the script
The news that Abu Qatada is to be bailed marks another plot turn in the blockbuster that is “Londonistan.” The story, for those who need reminding, begins in the late 1990s, when the French, in particular, were being driven crazy by what they saw as Britain’s naïve neglect of dangerous extremists living in London. These were people, they said, involved in spreading a message of hatred and violence towards non-Muslims; in some cases, too, it was said, helping to recruit volunteers and raise money for terrorist acts.
Slowly but surely, however, the main characters in “Londonistan” disappeared from Britain’s streets. Firebrand preacher Abdullah al-Faisal was convicted of soliciting to murder in 2003; last year he was deported to his native Jamaica. Abu Hamza, who ran the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, is serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure after he, too, was found guilty of soliciting murder. Once out he faces almost certain extradition to the United States to face trial on separate terrorism offences. And Omar Bakri, the founder of AQ-sympathisers, Al Muhajiroun, fled Britain shortly after 7/7 and was subsequently barred from coming back.
Abu Qatada’s story was always more complicated. Convicted in absentia in his native Jordan for terrorism offences in the 1990s, he was later described by Spain’s chief terrorism prosecutor, Baltasar Garzon, as Osama Bin Laden’s right hand man in Europe. Recordings of his sermons were found in a Hamburg apartment frequented by the 9/11 hijackers.
Facing likely arrest in the face of new terror laws in Britain introduced after those attacks Abu Qatada went on the run. He was caught in October 2002 and then held without charge at Belmarsh high security prison for two and a half years. In March 2005 he won bail and was slapped with a control order instead, placing strict limitations on his movements.
At this point the British government embarked on a new strategy for dealing with foreign nationals it believed posed a threat to national security. It started negotiating agreements, or Memoranda of Understanding, with countries with dodgy human rights records aimed at securing a promise from those governments that they wouldn’t torture or carry out the death penalty on individuals returned there from Britain. After agreement was reached with Jordan in August 2005, Qatada was immediately arrested again pending deportation. It looked like the beginning of the end.
That is until not one but two key legal victories for Abu Qatada in the space of the last four weeks. First the Court of Appeal blocked deportation saying it was unsafe to send him back to Jordan. And now an immigration tribunal has granted him bail, albeit effectively confining him to his house for 22 hours each day. Britain’s Home Secretary pronounced herself extremely disappointed at this latest decision.
It’s all very messy and certainly offers fresh ammunition to those who believe “Londonistan” continues to tie British authorities up in knots. With recent High Court challenges to certain terror offences as well as the sanctions regime targeting terrorist financing, there will be those who believe British judges remain too soft on the terror threat.
Opposition politicians, meanwhile, are saying it underlines the need for Britain to fall into step with many other jurisdictions around the world and allow intercept evidence into court. If that’s what is needed to build a case against Abu Qatada in a British court, they say, then the case for changing the law has never been stronger.
By Andrew Carey
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