In a speech last week at Gray's Inn Sir Geoffrey Bindman Britain's foremost human rights lawyer, said that civil liberties are "undergoing a vicious and dishonest attack". He accused David Cameron and the Conservatives for being complicit in this process and went as far as suggesting that one refrain from voting for them. Abu Qatada's case is illustrative of Sir Bindman's point.
The truth is, hucksters and the Grub Street press have dangled bogeymen like Abu Qatada and tricked us into giving up our civil liberties. By way of character assassination, demagoguery and perpetuating what Sir Bindman describes as the "mythology of terrorism", we have hounded an ostensibly innocent man to the Jordanian dungeons without ever putting him through the courts. Yet his departure will mark the loss of the very essence of our legal system: Habeas Corpus and then some.
Those who argue against the notion will have to answer the question of why Abu Qatada has served the equivalent of a twenty six year sentence, yet never been charged, nor been questioned by the police. He does not know what the charges or what the evidence against him is. Only the judges of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) are privy to that. Any response is like punching at shadows; done through a special advocate vetted by MI5.
Yet despite the government's extensive powers to deal with national security threats they cannot provide credible evidence in an open and transparent court. Why not? We did it in far more sensitive cases like the Crevice case where the dubious practices of intelligence agencies were exposed. Why should there be this Abu Qatada exceptionalism? Why can't due process be granted to him when we granted it to Nazi war criminals in Nuremburg? Why are calls by Amnesty , Cageprisoners, Human Rights Watch and Liberty falling on deaf ears? His ideas or political views do not warrant detention without charge for thirteen years.
Due process requires us to prove by evidence, beyond reasonable doubt, that he is guilty of something. We have circumvented this fundamental principle with Abu Qatada and replaced it with circumstantial evidence, like the tapes of his sermons found in Muhammad Atta's flat in Germany and his alleged links with the GIA, the militant Islamist group in Algeria's bloody civil war.
We have replaced this principle with propositions like those of Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon that he is "Bin Laden's right hand man in Europe". We parrot these conjectures knowing that Abu Qatada has never stood in front of the latter and that the Spanish judge was convicted for perverting the cause of justice . For several years Abu Zubayda was described in similar terms by the US government until it was proved untrue . Instead of ignoring the rule of law and relying on conjecture, why can't the government prove by evidence that Abu Qatada is guilty of something?
Of course the British government wants us to accept in good faith that there is evidence against the cleric. But should we trust governments that lied about WMD in Iraq, their personal expenses and many others issues? Accepting the government's argument means turning our back on the Rule of Law; precedent, the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights (1689). The latter promises all of us freedom from punishment without trial and serves as the basis for Sir David Maxwell Fyffe and his team of British lawyers' draft of the European Convention on Human Rights. When Abu Qatada 'voluntarily' leaves we may indeed be relieved of a huge legal bill and the home secretary just one step closer to the Conservative leadership, but the true cost is much higher.
When we relinquish the essence of British justice then we can collude with dictators to torture the likes of Abdel Hakim Bel Haj and others. We can allow for rendition flights to land on British soil . We can extradite our own citizens and remove their citizenship . We can keep persons under house arrest without ever charging them or showing them the evidence . We can convict people in secret courts and whittle down of the burden of proof to include thought crime. We can accept racial profiling, and perhaps most disturbing of all, contribute to the xenophobic discourse which British lives have paid dearly for in the Second World War. When we accept the loss of Habeas Corpus we lose something of ourselves; our British sense of fair play.