The voluntary departure from Britain of Omar Othman, better known as Abu Qatada, is a triumph for the independence of the judiciary over this and previous governments’ high profile attempts to send him back to an unfair trial in Jordan in which the evidence against him was obtained by torture. Our judiciary have safeguarded a prominent political refugee who our society chose to persecute in a disgraceful way.
In character with how this saga has been played by the government the Prime Minister tweeted his pleasure in the early hours of the morning and Home Secretary Theresa May was ready with a statement consistent with months of populist spin, "I am glad that this government's determination to see him on a plane has been vindicated and that we have at last achieved what previous governments, Parliament and the British public have long called for. This dangerous man has now been removed from our shores to face the courts in his own country."
The Home Secretary’s mantra that “this is a dangerous man, a suspected terrorist,” has been repeated so often, that the facts have been forgotten.Noone suggests Mr Othman is physically dangerous himself. Noone has charged him with anything, except the Jordanians with the torture-tainted evidence. Noone has pointed to anything controversial that he is alleged to have said since the mid 1990s. At that time he aligned himself with Islamic revolutionary movements that had risen against the very regimes that have fallen, or barely cling to power today.
The endlessly repeated quote from a Spanish prosecutor that Mr Othman was “Osama Bin Laden’s right hand man in Europe”, and reports that recordings of his sermons were found in the rooms of one of the September 11 hijackers are the smears people retain about him. They have all forgotten that in 2005 Mr Othman made a video from prison to the Iraqi kidnappers of Briton Norman Kember, successfully saving him from death by invoking “the principle of mercy”.
Mr Othman is listed on the UN Security Council Committee 1267, which freezes all his assets for alleged links with Al Qaeda. This list is another secret and unaccountable legacy of the war on terror, which has nearly 500 people named by various security services since 2001 and it has ruined many families’ lives. Who knows which one put him on it.
Mrs May and the chorus behind her in the end game of this12 year saga have left poison in our society. The Home Secretary, Prime Minister, Mayor of London, countless MPs, including many senior Labour party figures, have led the media in making Mr Othman the most demonised individual in Britain. Their reckless and prejudiced remarks about how dangerous and unwelcome he is here and media’s constant use of the phrase “Hate-preacher” linked with his name would be actionable slander if he was anyone else. They refused to listen to a heavy-weight section of the establishment who studied the Othman case.
Since 2007 as many as twelve senior British judges in various court hearings have recognised the torture origins of the evidence against him, which successive Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries have publicly put all their political weight into ignoring until a few weeks ago. The US, on behalf of their key Middle Eastern ally Jordan, went so far as to kidnap two UK residents Jamil el Banna and Bisher Al Rawi on a business trip in West Africa, torture them in Bagram and take them to Guantanamo, in order to interrogate them about Mr Othman. When those men had the temerity to sue the British authorities for what they had done, Parliament was persuaded that it would be a good idea in the future to create secret courts to adjudicate on secret defences.
The British judges’ success is that the Jordanian government has now made a change in its law that applies only to Mr Othman and no one else. In his case the burden of proof is now on the prosecutor to show that any statement made against him in court was not produced by torture or any other form of ill-treatment– a reversal of the previous situation.
In addition his safety in Jordan is enormously enhanced by the new conditions agreed, which include his detention in a civilian facility, the exclusion of the Jordanian Intelligence Service (GID) from any access to him, and monitoring by an independent human rights body. Members of that body accompanied him on the plane from London.
The state-sanctioned hatred of one man was encapsulated by Mr Cameron’s words earlier this year, “I am completely fed up with the fact that this man is still at large in our country.” Yesterday Mr Cameron said it was, “an issue that like the rest of the country has made my blood boil that this man who has no right to be in our country, who is a threat to our country and that it took so long and was so difficult to deport him, but we have done it….." Other MPs earlier suggested that as the UK courts had failed to remove him the Home Secretary should just put him on a plane even if that broke the law. Others suggested leaving the European Union because the European Court of Human Rights upheld his right not to be sent to face a court where the evidence again him came from torture.
This hysterical atmosphere encouraged the English Defence League and their off-shoots in their violent actions and speech against muslims in general, and in particular in the regular weekly mob besieging of the Othmans’ family house when the address was supposed to be kept secret by a court order for their safety. Those Saturdays were a terrifying ordeal for the family, but it took a court case to get the police to stop it.
The Othman saga is part of a story of great cruelty by our society against a group of muslim families who settled here happily and successfully as refugees two decades ago. It was a time when Middle East and North African civil wars or repression by corrupt dictators who have mostly now fallen, brought many families here for safety.
Mr Othman is a Palestinian born in Bethlehem and brought up in Jordan where in Black September in 1970 thousands of Palestinians were killed by the Jordanian army. He was granted political asylum here in 1994 on the grounds of torture while in prison in Jordan. But everything was changed for these refugees by the US and UK governments’ response to 9/11 with arbitrary arrests and measures that have broken and scarred many innocent families here in the last decade.
For 12 years Mr Othman has been the subject of immigration measures, which have taken him from his family and seen him imprisoned in High Risk Category A units for longer than any other non-convicted person in modern British history. Mr Justice Mitting in the Special Appeals Immigration Commission (SIAC), who was then responsible for granting him bail against the government’s wishes, described the period he had been held as “lamentable…extraordinary…hardly, if at all, acceptable.”
Mr Othman was detained in Belmarsh prison as one of a dozen muslim refugee men arrested post 9/11 and held without charge for two and a half years. He and his family were the psychological support for others through the stress of indefinite detention, which took a heavy toll on the mental health of many of the men, and on their families. There were suicide attempts and several men were admitted to Broadmoor Secure Mental Hospital. A team of 11 psychiatrists assessed the group as suffering “helplessness and hopelessness.”
After the House of Lords declared their detention illegal, they were released and subjected to house arrest with rigorous conditions. But even that restricted family life was only enjoyed for 15 months by this family. Mr Othman’s bail was revoked three times – in hearings that relied mainly on secret evidence and on the allegation that he would attempt to leave the country. (Given the extraordinary level of surveillance he was under; the unchallengeable fact that this family of seven people is the tightest of units; and his own code of honour eloquently expressed to the judge, absconding could hardly be taken seriously.)
Having been a friend of Mrs Othman and her daughters for some years, and a visitor to her husband in Long Lartin prison, I have personal experience of the high moral standards and intellectual and cultural interests of this man and his family. He is a charismatic scholar who western Security Services and British politicians have made into an Islamic counter-terrorism myth. They should instead have tried talking to him.
With his scholarship and life experiences Mr Othman could have played a good role in our divided society where many muslim youths are short of role models they can respect. Today many such young men do respect him without knowing him just because of the extraordinary disrespect and cruelty the government and media have shown him and his family. This has done nothing for social cohesion.
Mr Othman might be seen as someone like Guy Fawkes, albeit that before he was tortured, Mr Fawkes was actually caught with the gun-powder. Like his 16th century catholic clerical predecessors, Abu Qatada had to sit in modern-day versions of the Tower of London. In the end, SIAC did not prove itself to be the Star Chamber and the settlement of this issue will stand as an essential victory for the right to a fair trial for all persons anywhere in the world.
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