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 to face a trial in Jordan, where the evidence against him was obtained by torture. Our judiciary has safeguarded a prominent political refugee who our society chose to persecute in a disgraceful way.
Since 2007 as many as 12 senior British judges in various courts have recognised the torture origins of the evidence against him – which successive prime ministers and home secretaries have, until a few weeks ago, publicly put all their political weight into ignoring.
The US, aided by the UK, on behalf of its key ally Jordan, went so far as to kidnap UK residents Jamil el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi on a business trip in Africa, torture them in Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and take them to Guantánamo Bay in order to interrogate them about Othman. When those men sued the British authorities for what they had done, parliament was persuaded 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 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 from any access to him, monitoring by an independent human rights body, and a commitment that Britain will be contacted if there are concerns.
But the most recent phase of this 12-year saga has left poison in our society. The home secretary, prime minister, mayor of London and countless MPs – including senior Labour party figures – have led the media in reckless and prejudiced comments, making Othman the most demonised individual in Britain.
This state-sanctioned hatred of one man is encapsulated by David Cameron’s words: “I am completely fed up with the fact that this man is still at large in our country.” MPs suggested that, as the courts had failed to remove him, the home secretary should just put him on a plane – even if that broke the law.
This atmosphere encouraged the English Defence League and its offshoots in their violence and vitriol against Muslims in general, and in particular in the 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 were terrifying Saturdays for the family, but it took a court case to get the police to stop it.
For 12 years Othman has been the subject of immigration measures, which have seen him imprisoned in high-risk units for longer than any other non-convicted person in modern British history. Mr Justice Mitting in the special appeals immigration commission, 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”.
All this began with Othman’s detention in Belmarsh prison among a dozen Muslim refugees arrested post-9/11 and held without charge for over two years. He and his family supported others through the stress of indefinite detention, which took a heavy toll on the mental health of many of the men and their families, leading to suicide attempts and confinement in hospitals. These men’s lives were destroyed by the response of the American and British governments to 9/11 with arbitrary arrests and measures that have broken innocent families.
After the House of Lords declared their detention illegal, the men were put under house arrest with rigorous conditions, which some have broken. However, even that restricted family life could be enjoyed for only 15 months by Othman, whose bail was revoked three times – in hearings that relied mainly on secret evidence and the allegation that he would attempt to leave the country. Given the extraordinary level of surveillance he was under and his own code of honour eloquently expressed to the judge, the prospect of absconding could not be taken seriously.
The mantra of the home secretary, Theresa May, that “this is a dangerous man, a suspected terrorist”, has been repeated so often that the facts have been forgotten. No one suggests Othman is physically dangerous himself. No one has charged him with anything, except the Jordanians with the torture-tainted evidence. No one 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 opposing regimes that have now fallen, or which barely cling to power.
Our security services and politicians turned this man into an Islamic counter-terrorism myth. If instead they had chosen to talk to him, as I have many times, they would have found that the man behind the myth is a scholar with wide intellectual and cultural interests. He wrote books while he was in prison. His home is filled with books. His children have excelled at school, with help and encouragement from his daily phone calls from prison.
I have been a friend of Othman’s wife and daughters for some years, and have had many opportunities to talk to him in prison, as well as some when he was at home on bail. I’ve been struck by his dignity and lack of bitterness over the treatment he and his family have suffered and I believe that, rather than being scapegoated, his moral standards could have been useful in engaging Muslim youth and healing the wounds in our divided society.