The hysteria over the Court decision to allow the "radical cleric" Abu Qatada out of prison and offer him extremely stringently conditioned bail is both predictable and deplorable. Predictable, because the tabloid press is very happy to focus on the "Preacher of Hate", and attack the Courts and Europe.
But what is actually going on? Mr Qatada has been locked up for six and a half years. He has not been prosecuted, much less convicted; and one can only assume that whatever he might have said and done, there is in the opinion of the Crown Prosecution Service insufficient evidence to charge him with any offence, including one of the plethora of new offences created to deal with the threat of terrorism. In addition, although Mr Qatada is apparently wanted for terrorist offences in the United States, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and his native Jordan; it is only a Jordanian request for extradition that has been received and processed, and unsurprisingly, given the state of human rights observance in Jordan, extradition there, where a fair trial could not be guaranteed, was not compatible with our own human rights legislation.
Unfortunately, Mr Qatada is not someone whon attracts sympathy: indeed the opposite is true. There is no doubt at all that he has come to this country, originally to escape religious persecution in the UAE, without any intention of accepting the welcome offered by the UK to those who settle here, on the terms that they play a part in British society and contribute towards the common good. Instead he has preached what amounts to religious apartheid, and has done more to undermine the cohesion of the communities here than the BNP could ever have done.
But there are three elementary principles of our justice system which are being tested here:
- That a person is treated as innocent until proven guilty;
- That a person who is accused, is entitled to a fair trial;
- That all those who come before the courts are entitled to expect the same treatment, irrespective of their opinions or background.
By imprisoning this man for over six years, we have failed the first of these. But this does not mean that this state of affairs should continue. The other two appear to dictate that Mr Qatada should be charged or released, and perhaps his release will galvanise the authorities, who presumably have been complacently inactive, into deciding if charges should be brought; and determining once and for all if indeed he is a criminal or just a deeply unpleasant ranter. if the latter, he could perhaps get a job with the Daily Express,
But the most important lesson is for us, and for the tabloid press. What have we come to when a person can be thrown into an oubliette for over half a decade without a public outcry? What guarantee have we that we will not be next? For those papers that claim to seek to defend our traditions, what is wrong with defending the legal structures and the attendant derived principles of justice that have over the years been the basis of our freedoms?
Sadly the answer has more to do with prejudice than any sort of conviction.