Abu Qatada’s Release in Jordan Discredits Tory Hysteria About the Need to Dismiss Human Rights Law

29.9.14

Last Wednesday, in Amman, Jordan, 12 years of British hysteria about terrorism was thoroughly undermined when the radical cleric Abu Qatada, who was returned to Jordan from the UK in July 2013, was acquitted of terrorism charges and freed.

Abu Qatada (real name Omar Mahmoud Othman) was arrested in October 2002 — as were a handful of other foreign nationals — and imprisoned without charge or trial in Belmarsh Prison, under terrorism legislation passed in 2001. In 2005, the system of indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial was replaced with control orders, a form of house arrest, and Abu Qatada was released from Belmarsh, but after the London terrorist attacks in July 2005, he and other men were rounded up and imprisoned once more.

This time around the intention was to deport the men imprisoned without charge or trial, but although a secret terrorism court — the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) — ruled that he could be deported in February 2007, that decision was overturned by the appeals court in April 2008.

As the Guardian explained at the time, the three appeals court judges halted the deportations of Qatada and two Libyans “despite ‘memorandums of understanding’ (MoU) from Jordan and Libya promising that they would receive fair trials and not face torture.” The judges “blocked Qatada’s removal to Jordan on the grounds that it was likely he would face a trial based on evidence obtained under torture by the Jordanian intelligence services,” which would breach the UK’s obligations under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to a fair trial.

The month after, Abu Qatada was released under strict bail conditions, including a 22-hour daily curfew, but in November 2008 he was rearrested and returned to prison, pending fresh efforts to deport him, after SIAC agreed with claims made by the government, suggesting that it was “likely that he [would] break his bail conditions by absconding,” even though that seemed unfeasible to observers, like myself, who were sceptical about the hysteria used by the government in an attempt to justify its outrageous counter-terrorism measures.

In February 2009, the Law Lords shamefully reversed the appeals court ruling, as I explained in a major article at the time, ruling that Abu Qatada and a number of Algerians could be deported, although he remained imprisoned as his case was under consideration in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in January 2012 that, as the UK appeals court had ruled in 2008, he could not be deported because it would be a violation of his right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Bailed in February 2012, he was rearrested in April, after home secretary Theresa May said she had received assurances from Jordan that meant he could now be deported. However, Qatada appealed again, both in the European court and in the UK, where he asked Theresa May to drop the deportation order against him, and in November SIAC ruled that he was still at risk of having evidence obtained under torture used against him and Theresa May had been wrong not to revoke the deportation order against him.

During a visit to Italy, David Cameron responded by expressing exasperation with SIAC. “I am completely fed up with the fact that this man is still at large in our country,” he said. “He has no right to be there, we believe he is a threat to our country. We have moved heaven and earth to try to comply with every single dot and comma of every single convention to get him out of our country. It is extremely frustrating.”

In March 2013, he was arrested again for allegedly breaching his bail conditions, and later that month the appeals court rejected Theresa May’s appeal against SIAC’s ruling in November 2012, denying her leave to appeal in April, on the basis that “states cannot expel someone where there is a real risk that they will face a trial based on evidence obtained by torture.”

However, in May 2013, after further intensive negotiations between the UK and Jordan, Abu Qatada said that he would return to Jordan if a treaty was agreed and ratified by both the UK and Jordanian governments promising that evidence obtained through torture would not be used against him in a trial in Jordan, and when this was agreed, in July 2013, he was deported.

Reporting on the trial last week, the Guardian stated that the court in Amman “ruled there was insufficient evidence against Abu Qatada, with the judge describing the charges as weak and inadmissible.” He had initially been given a 15-year sentence in absentia in 2000 for his alleged role in an alleged plot to carry out terror attacks on Americans and Israelis during celebrations of the Millennium in Jordan, but without the information obtained through torture it turned out that there was no case.

As the Guardian also noted, six British home secretaries “spent a total of £1.7m trying numerous diplomatic moves to assuage judges’ fears that sending the preacher to Jordan would breach his human rights.”

That is a huge amount of money for nothing, but the government remains unrepentant. Trying to cover their embarrassment, ministers instead made a big noise about how Abu Qatada cannot return to the UK, which, to be honest, is not something he would want to do. The Guardian reported that the Home Office issued a statement saying, “He can’t come back, and he won’t come back. He is a Jordanian and he does not have a UK passport. He is also the subject of an indefinite deportation order as well. He would not be granted permission to enter the UK, end of story.”

All that noise, it seems to me, is designed to cover up a profoundly embarrassing truth — that, as well as spending £1.7m working out how to send Abu Qatada to Jordan, successive UK governments lied and exaggerated about the threat posed by Abu Qatada and other men detained without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence, failing to prosecute them here in the UK, because there was no reliable evidence, and, instead, pretending that it was necessary to deport them, even though doing so involved an unwise and unprincipled struggle to overturn the safeguards against torture that were put in place after the Second World War.

To make things worse, the day that Abu Qatada’s acquittal was announced, Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, told the Daily Telegraph that the Tories “are ready to change the law to ensure that Britain is no longer ‘powerless’ before the European court,” as the Telegraph put it, adding, “After extensive deliberations, the Conservatives are ready to unveil their plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and ensure that the final decision on controversial legal cases is taken by Britain’s Supreme Court and not judges in Strasbourg.”

As on so many issues of importance, the Tories, yet again, are playing a disgraceful populist card, repeatedly promoted by their tabloid messengers, even though it is not only unacceptable, legally, morally and ethically, but also unnecessary. That, lest we forget, is what Abu Qatada’s case actually shows.

Note: For an interesting perspective on this story, see “The Abu Qatada outcome is a hollow victory for human rights law” by Bernard Keenan in the Guardian.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Tony Gosling wrote:

    Good one Andy. Despite his innocence he will not be allowed back into Britain. The government acting like a dictatorship!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tony. I think he’s obviously better off away from a government that delights so unlawfully in its use of secret evidence – plus he has UN sanctions against him. As Bernard Keenan noted in the Guardian article I linked to at the end of mine, if he tried to return to the UK “he would face another lengthy appeal to Siac, with no clearer idea of the nature of the evidence against him than he had before. Before that, he would have to be de-listed from the UN security council’s al-Qaida sanctions list, via an opaque process that involves no court whatsoever (not even a secret one). If he somehow succeeded, he would return only to further detention and house arrest.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks for your brilliant and accurate article Andy.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very kind, Ann. As you know, I wrote a lot about Britain’s anti-terror laws when the Labour government was still in power – particularly in 2009 – and I haven’t been as assiduous about bashing the Tories for their approach to terrorism since they got in – but only because they have been so unrelentingly vile on every aspect of our lives and I have spent time covering their attacks on the NHS and on the disabled. It all comes flooding back though when I get a vivid reminder of how long the UK has been flouting the law – but only for Muslims – in its counter-terrorism policies, and this is a perfect example. I do hope we will get something very prominent organised for next year, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    No way would he even want to return to the UK!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, Mary. Like the other men in the UK subjected to imprisonment without charge or trial on the basis of secret evidence after the 9/11 attacks, Abu Qatada lost a decade of his life trying to challenge a country that had turned its back on the rule of law and the requirement that it apply to everybody. What I find particularly depressing is how he was never even questioned, let alone charged with a crime in the UK, and yet those who wanted to get rid of him, up to and including various PMs and home secretaries, seem to think it appropriate to want to get rid of people – even when it involves complicity in torture – just because they don’t like them, because that, in the end, is all we can say with any certainty about someone whose supposed dangerousness is kept a secret – from the public, from lawyers, and even from the accused himself. We knew about the supposed millennium plot – the one that didn’t exist – but we never knew what some of the other supposed evidence was, even though I’m pretty sure it came from other disreputable sources, like men held and tortured in CIA “black sites,” for example.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    What defies logic is that more people die from gun violence in the US than from any act of terrorism.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    Why does the average mass murderer or serial killer have more rights than an innocent man in Gitmo?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    Basically, is anyone so dangerous that they should have no rights at all?

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Meena B Sharma wrote:

    President Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay detention center .. prisoners are there with no charges … Mary, these people have no rights at all..

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    All good questions, Mary. Yes, the hysteria surrounding the “war on terror” definitely defies logic, as your comment about gun violence demonstrates. The numbers of people killed by cars should also be an eye-opener.
    Basically, if a Muslim is put on trial in federal court in the US and accused of terrorism, a sense of proportion generally disappears, and almost all trials end in convictions. When “Guantanamo” is added to the words “Muslim” and “terrorism,” however, the result is relentless hysteria, and men who have never been charged or tried are regarded as infinitely more dangerous than convicted mass murderers. It’s a horrible demonstration of the success of the politics of fear and the demonization of “the other.”
    And of course there is no excuse for holding anyone without rights, even though the Guantanamo prisoners – all of them – had no rights whatsoever from when Guantanamo opened in January 2002 until June 2004, when the Supreme Court intervened on their behalf.
    It’s sometime useful just to put all this information out there again, isn’t it? It doesn’t look any more acceptable, does it? More a lawless, experimental torture prison whose existence is an affront to all notions of justice, fairness and decency.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Meena, I’m inclined to agree, as there is no mechanism whereby any of the men can guarantee that they will ever be freed – no sentence handed down by a court, no war that will necessarily end. The prisoners have been granted habeas rights twice – in 2004 and again in 2008 after Congress had tried to remove those rights – but those rights have ended up meaning nothing, as the DC Circuit Court made sure that habeas corpus meant nothing if you happened to be a Guantanamo prisoner, and the Supreme Court has done nothing to address that.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    A friend who is involved in monitoring and addressing human rights issues in relation to counter-terrorism policies wrote to me to point out that what I had missed in my round-up was the fact that the diplomatic assurances had been violated, which she described as “the single most damning dimension of the whole affair.” My friend had tried to raise this with the British government, but to no avail.

    She also sent the following article by Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch, which looks at some of these issues:

    Abu Qatada Trial Showed UK/Jordan Torture Treaty is Worthless
    July 11, 2014

    The terrorism trial of the radical Islamic preacher Abu Qatada lasted several months, but in the end his fate rested on this one single moment, writes Adam Coogle.

    Jordan’s State Security Court, mostly empty during the long, interminable weeks of legal arguments and delays, was packed with camera crews and family members on June 26.

    The chamber fell silent as Judge Ahmed al-Qatarneh prepared to announce whether in reaching a verdict, he would consider a decade-old confession from Abu Qatada’s alleged accomplice that British courts and the European Court of Human Rights feared had been extracted under torture.

    The entire trial – a retrial over an allegation Abu Qatada was involved in 1998 terrorism plot — hinged on this one decision. (He faces a separate ongoing trial before the same court for his alleged involvement in a different bomb plot in 2000; a verdict is expected in September). This trial followed Abu Qatada’s high profile extradition battle with the UK that had gone on for many years.

    The judge read his page-long edict, announcing that the confession would stand.

    As the judge spoke, I exchanged looks with others who were there. This could only mean one thing. Abu Qatada would surely be found guilty.

    A journalist friend turned to me and mouthed the word ‘mouabad’ — “life sentence” in Arabic. I nodded in silent agreement.

    So imagine the reaction when Judge al-Qatarneh then announced that Omar Othman, better known as Abu Qatada, was “not guilty” of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.

    The court erupted. People stood up in disbelief. His family started hugging. Abu Qatada, sitting in a cage, smiled briefly before he was swamped by TV cameras.

    By all accounts, this was an unexpected decision, but the acquittal has done little to diminish long-standing concerns over Jordan’s record on torture.

    At first glance, the acquittal might suggest that Abu Qatada received a fair trial, and that concerns that Human Rights Watch and others raised about the case were unfounded. Not so. While Abu Qatada was acquitted, the use of the confession makes a mockery of the “diplomatic assurances” Jordan gave the UK before his deportation in 2013.

    Abu Qatada, who’d already been convicted in absentia once for his alleged role in the 1998 plot to bomb targets in Amman, fought a 10-year court battle to stave off deportation from the UK with courts in London and Strasbourg ruling he could not be sent back due to the real risk that the Jordanian courts would allow evidence obtained by torture against him. He only agreed to return once Jordan signed a treaty with the UK promising that its courts would not admit evidence obtained through coercion.

    The statement admitted by the Jordanian courts in 1999 and again at the preacher’s recent trial – and the only piece of evidence directly implicating Abu Qatada in the bomb plot – was the confession of his alleged co-conspirator Abd al-Nasser al-Khamaiseh. The reasons the courts gave to support the legality of the confession, in both 1999 and 2014, were chiefly that the medical report performed on al-Khamaiseh following his detention in 1998 did not reveal injuries or bodily harm, and that it was given directly to the State Security Court (SSC) military prosecutor rather than officers of Jordan’s intelligence agency – the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), whom al-Khamaiseh accused of torturing him before he confessed.

    These arguments are far from convincing. Human Rights Watch has documented the close relationship between the SSC military prosecutor and the GID – the former maintained an office inside the main GID headquarters at the time, and former detainees have told Human Rights Watch that officers move them back and forth between GID interrogators and prosecutors until the desired confession is obtained. Detainees also say that only doctors assigned to the GID performed their medical examinations, and they were refused independent medical exams while in detention. Judges in the Abu Qatada trial did not address these concerns, which were also shared by the European Court of Human Rights, in their verdict.

    The State Security Court appears to have violated key procedural safeguards found in Jordan’s treaty with the UK, which stipulates that if there is “a real risk” that a statement was obtained through torture, it cannot not be admitted as trial evidence unless the prosecutor first proves “beyond any doubt” that it was not coerced. During Abu Qatada’s trial judges did not ask the military prosecutor to prove the legality of al-Khamaiseh’s confession prior to presenting it to the court, but rather accepted it into the record without question and ruled on its admissibility only at the end of the trial.

    Perhaps most telling, the verdict states that al-Khamaiseh’s confession could not be disallowed, because previous 1999 rulings of the SSC and an appeals court had rendered its admissibility res judicata – a previously-decided matter that cannot be raised again in court. This seems to suggest that to the court, the UK-Jordan treaty has no impact whatsoever on what evidence was admitted in Abu Qatada’s case.

    Ultimately, Abu Qatada was found not guilty because al-Khamaiseh’s confession was not supported by other statements or evidence, as required by Jordanian law. But the fact that the confession was admitted as evidence at all shows just how worthless the treaty really was. It’s clear that “diplomatic assurances” from countries with poor records on torture aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s another article by Adam Coogle, this one from the Huffington Post on October 27:

    Abu Qatada Case Is No Victory for London

    UK officials are probably breathing a sigh of relief over the case of radical Islamic preacher Omar Othman, better known as Abu Qatada. After 12 years of court battles to deport him to Jordan and prolonged detentions in the UK and Jordan, Abu Qatada was acquitted and freed there allowing Home Secretary Theresa May to assert that “due process” had taken place in Jordan.

    The UK says Abu Qatada got a fair trial because of its agreement with Jordan not to use confessions that the European Court of Human Rights, in a 2012 ruling against the deportation, said it suspected had been obtained under torture. But if the UK thinks it has won a free pass to use these questionable agreements in the future, it should think again.

    On September 24, Jordan’s State Security Court exonerated Abu Qatada of any wrongdoing for his alleged involvement in a plot to bomb Christian tourist sites in Jordan and other targets in 2000. In June, the same court cleared him of involvement in a 1998 bomb plot. But in those trials, which I attended, Jordan appeared to violate the treaty by introducing without prior examination the very evidence it promised not to.

    In both trials, the primary evidence was the confession of a co-defendant — the leader of each plot. Each allegedly conspired to carry out attacks in Jordan in concert with Abu Qatada, who was then living in the UK.

    For the 1998 plot trial, the court brazenly upheld the legality of the torture-tainted confession and admitted it into the record, a clear breach of the treaty, while finding Abu Qatada not guilty on the ground that other evidence to corroborate the “legal” confession was lacking.

    For the 2000 plot trial, the court took a different approach. Instead of admitting two statements by the co-defendant, the court quoted several lines from the UK-Jordan treaty on the exclusion of torture-tainted testimony, but then threw out the statements on entirely different grounds, saying that, “There is nothing irrefutable in them that points clearly to [Abu Qatada’s] agreement with the defendant… on the conspiracy which is the subject of this case.”

    Nowhere did either ruling clearly acknowledge that the confessions might have been obtained by torture or exclude them on that basis, as the treaty required. In fact that second ruling smacks of a face-saving exercise, with the court unwilling to acknowledge that its previous admission of the same evidence had been problematic, while trying to find ways to ignore it. Whatever the explanation it is hardly consistent with international fair trial principles or the intention of the treaty, which is that such confessions should not be admitted as evidence.

    Under the spotlight of high-profile terrorism trials followed closely by the UK and international monitors, one might have expected Jordan to come to grips with its troubled history of extracting confessions through coercion, at least for this one case. The treaty, however, did not deliver, and the two court rulings do not open the possibility of accountability for the officers involved in extracting the confessions.

    Instead of spending millions of pounds and countless hours of negotiation to deport one individual, the UK might well consider pursuing a different approach, one that would address the systemic factors that permit the practice of torture in Jordan or other countries where the same issue arises.

    First, the UK could press the other country to amend its criminal procedure law to permit lawyers to be present with detainees from the time they are arrested. In Jordan, for example, interrogators have 24 hours to pressure detainees to “confess” without obstruction.

    Second, the UK could advise an ally that wants a high-profile suspect deported to overhaul its accountability system for these kinds of crimes. Security officers in Jordan, for example, have near total impunity for torture and other ill-treatment, in part because there is no independent mechanism to investigate abuse.

    Internal police prosecutors and a special police court – rather than regular courts – are responsible for investigating and trying police in cases of alleged wrongdoing. For intelligence officers the process is less clear. Human Rights Watch has found no evidence that any intelligence officer in Jordan has ever been convicted on the basis of article 208 of its penal code, which forbids torture.

    If the UK spent just a fraction of the energy that it devoted to deporting Abu Qatada to pressing Jordan and other allies in similar cases to amend these practices, any benefits from their efforts would extend to all of their citizens, not just to one.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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