The Terrible Choice Between Justice and Justice

I don’t often write about politics on my blog. I think I had a bit of a rant about the budget for the Olympics once, and I might have made an aside or two in the middle of a more general chat about my life. But since I’m studying law, I spend quite a lot of time caring about justice, human rights, and the impossibility of always knowing the right answer.

The Abu Qatatda case is one of the best examples of that impossibility. Periodically it come back into the news again, prompting me to make half-joking objections to the resultant headlines “May hopes to deport Qatada” or “May determined to appeal against High Court judgement”. That’s Theresa May, of course, not my very own self.

Abu Qatada is not a nice man. He’s wanted all over the world for terrorism, and has been on the run from Jordan for most of my lifetime. I don’t doubt that he is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the loss or ruin of many lives. It seems remarkable that we can’t find a crime to prosecute him for.

But there’s the problem. Britain has no grounds to prosecute Abu Qatada. When he was initially arrested eleven years ago, it was without charge. After a few years it occurred to everyone that you can’t just lock people up indefinitely without first convicting them of a crime so attempts were made to deport him to Jordan, where he has been convicted in his absence of terrorism offences. So why not just send him back to Jordan?

There are bigger issues at stake here than the imprisonment of one man. Firstly there’s the fact that you can’t simply lock someone up because they’re dangerous. We really, really do not want to let the government start doing that: it sets a frankly terrifying precedent. Who is to decide what “dangerous” means? The magical phrase “national security” pulls down a thick black veil over any relevant evidence, making it nearly impossible to establish a defence against the charges – especially if no one will tell you what the charges are. I don’t want the government, any government, being able to lock someone up without trial and hide the reason behind a magic word.

The second big-picture issue is that Jordan used, and indeed uses, torture to obtain information. It’s flat-out illegal. It’s flat-out illegal to condone it, or to take advantage of it, or to turn a blind eye to it. If we deport Qatada or indeed anyone else to a country that will or already has engaged in acts of torture as part of their legal process, we are complicit in far more than that one incident. We are saying “it’s ok for you to torture people as long as it’s to our advantage. You go ahead and save us the trouble”.

The newspapers like to speculate how much it has cost the UK to keep Abu Qatada since he arrived here. He has been refused asylum, so he can’t work to support himself, but he can’t be sent back to Jordan because they might torture him, and already have tortured others in relation to him. He can’t support himself using the money he earned through his terrorist activities because his assets have been frozen, so the taxpayer has to foot the bill.

Now I’m not yet a tax payer, but I anticipate becoming one before this case comes to an end. And I would like to say: I am prepared to pay for the keep of people like Abu Qatada if doing so prevents my government from becoming complicit in torture. I would like to see justice done in this case, but that does not mean shipping him off in the knowledge that he will be treated in flagrant breach of his human rights and washing our hands of him. There are bigger principles at stake than just one monstrous man. The sanctity of the right not to be tortured, to receive a fair trial, to be able to defend oneself against the charges brought, and to be accorded the human rights that are inherent in everyone merely by the fact of their existence: those things are too important to abandon in order to appease an animalistic desire for punishment. Sacrifice just one, just once, and the game is up. Justice is a sham, the legal process is a fraud, and beneath the surface we’re just a lynch mob baying for blood.

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