A month ago, when Britain's Law Lords ruled that three men who have each spent between six and eight years imprisoned without charge or trial, or held without charge or trial under strict bail conditions amounting to house arrest, could be deported to their home countries, even though there was a risk - or, perhaps, even a probability - that they would be tortured or subjected to ill-treatment, the British media briefly woke up to the story. This was almost exclusively because one of the men was Omar Mahmoud Othman (more commonly known as Abu Qatada), a man routinely described as "al-Qaeda's spiritual ambassador in Europe," even though this claim has never been tested in a court of law.
The Law Lords' ruling was immediately challenged by the men's lawyers, and their deportation halted while an appeal is made to the European Court of Human Rights, but the following day there was tabloid outrage when Qatada and 10 other men were awarded around £26,000, plus £53,000 in legal costs, as compensation for their detention without charge or trial in Belmarsh, between December 2001 and March 2005, which, the judges ruled, had breached their human rights.
Qatada's share, which was flashed up in headlines across the nation, was £2,500, considerably less than the £170,000 he had been seeking, and, as the Guardian explained, "the judges said the detainees' cash compensation was 'substantially lower' than in previous cases of 'unlawful detention,'" because "they recognised that the government's detention scheme was 'devised in the face of a public emergency, and as an attempt to reconcile the need to protect the UK public against terrorism with the obligation not to send the applicants back to countries where they faced a real risk of ill-treatment.'"
Despite the widespread disgust in the media, the Independent pointed out, to those who could see beyond the narrow rhetoric, that the ECHR was only upholding the Law Lords ruling in 2004 that the government's action in imprisoning Qatada and the other men had been "disproportionate and unlawful," and added, "Unpleasant as Qatada is, there was no evidence (certainly none that would stand up in a regular court) that he had broken the law since arriving in Britain in 1993. The government's response to this lack of proof was to lock him up indefinitely under the authority of a secret immigration tribunal, thus undermining the principle that everyone in Britain should receive a fair and open trial before being imprisoned. This £2,500 payout is more than the loathsome Qatada deserves, but it is a small price to pay if it helps to preserve our civil liberties from the assaults of a government that seems unable to comprehend the very concept."
Outside of this bold editorial, few other major media outlets focused on the bigger picture: whether it was justifiable to risk contravening the UN Convention Against Torture by sending people back to countries where they could be tortured, and, even more critically, the reason why they had been imprisoned without charge or trial (and, latterly, under house arrest), which was, simply, because the government refused to follow the rest of the world in finding a way to test the supposed evidence it had in a court of law, whilst also protecting its intelligence sources (PDF).
No one cared either about the other two men - known only as RB and U - or others possibly facing similar deportation orders in decisions that will be made in the coming weeks by the Special Immigration Appeal Court (SIAC), a place where the secrecy that underpins the whole of Britain's Guantánamo-style regime is most clearly seen in the role of the Special Advocates. These are lawyers appointed to act on behalf of the prisoners in closed court sessions (deemed essential for reasons of national security), but who are then not allowed to breathe a word about what has taken place either to the prisoners or to their lawyers.
Three weeks ago, few media outlets even noticed when, as a result of the ECHR appeal, the government testily urged SIAC to revoke the bail orders of RB and U - and of three others, known only as Y, Z and VV - which established their confinement under strict conditions amounting to house arrest, and to order their imprisonment, yet again, in Belmarsh, on the basis that, since the Law Lords' ruling, there was allegedly a greater risk of them absconding. When the judge, Mr. Justice Mitting, refused, arguing instead that the bail conditions were sufficient until SIAC was able to complete a thorough review of the men's cases, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, intervened in the most extraordinary manner, kidnapping U and VV as they were delivered to their homes, seizing the other three men in house raids, and delivering them all to Belmarsh, without informing their lawyers or their families in advance.
The following day, Mr. Justice Mitting responded with admirable restraint, refraining from savaging the government for riding roughshod over his ruling, and ordering the release of all but one of the men, with the promise that the reasons for holding this last man, U, in Belmarsh, which apparently relied on brand-new "secret evidence" in the possession of the government, would be reviewed the following week.
When SIAC reconvened two weeks ago, to consider in more detail the government's reasons for claiming that U should be held in Belmarsh, rather than under the strict bail conditions in which he has been held since July 2008, another extraordinary story of governmental hyperbole and ineptitude unfolded.
Unlike some of the detainees held under control orders, who have been deliberately moved by the government to barely habitable flats in deprived areas of the UK, where they face racist hostility and can also be harassed with impunity by the government's agents, who can raid their homes in security checks at any time of the day or night, and can accuse the men of allegedly breaking their bail conditions without the presence of inconvenient witnesses, the detainee known only as U was - after much negotiation with the government - allowed to take a room in a house in a well-known town in southern England in which other rooms are let to students, where he has the support not only of the homeowner, but also of other members of the local community.
An educated man with an inquiring mind, U had already undertaken a degree course while imprisoned, and responded to the strict curfew imposed on him, which, effectively, held him in the house permanently, with no opportunities whatsoever to go outside, by embarking on a Masters course with the Open University in European Governance. In recent months, however, the Treasury Solicitors, who are responsible for approving routes that prisoners under house arrest may make as pedestrians, had allowed him to leave the house for an hour twice a week.
It was a sign of the government's disproportionate response to the purported threat posed by U that, for these short, bi-weekly excursions, he had to be accompanied by two members of his support team (his friends, who have to be security-cleared by the government) as well as four Home Office representatives - two walking behind, and two following in a car.
When SIAC heard the government's "secret evidence," which was supposed to justify U's return to Belmarsh, observers were appalled to discover that the argument put forward by Robin Tam QC, the Treasury Solicitor, was that, even though the route had been approved by his own government department, there was allegedly a risk that U would abscond because the route passed by a main road, was two km from a railway station, and was not far from a number of ports. Quite how this bookish man was supposed to overwhelm four Home Office representatives and make a run for it was not explained.
In a statement, U responded by stating, "My sole lifeline in prison and on bail has been education. If I intended to abscond I would have not enrolled on an MA course. I would never abscond or run away from the proceedings." He added, "I believe in justice," and also pointed out, "It is not fair that I do not know the secret evidence against me."
Witness statements in support of U came from several of the people who have come to know him, including the man whose house he shares, who described him as "my very good friend," noted that he "has taken a keen interest in all subjects," and added, "When I had an accident, Mr. U cared for me and cooked as I was unable to." He also stated that U "has never broken bail conditions," and that he "would not go to areas around the house where there was no signal" from the tag he is required to wear, and declared, "I truly believe he will not abscond. I hope he is allowed to continue to live in my home."
Beyond the ludicrous scenario of U's purported escape route, the prosecution's case essentially focused on the government's claim that U's bail conditions were "difficult to manage," and that the address, unlike the vulnerable hovels mentioned above, was "unmanageable." What this means is that U is not isolated, as the government wishes. His host has had great difficulty finding students to rent other rooms in his house, not only because they are prohibited from having computers on the premises, but also because they have to put up with regular raids by up to seven Home Office representatives (who, as one of U's support team explained, have "made no effort to get to know anyone, declaring from the start that they would not be working as a team with us, rather telling us what they would and would not permit"), seeking evidence that U is about to abscond, or is using a computer or a mobile phone. Given U's close circle of friends, however, in addition to the other tenants, the reality, for the Home Office, is that its paranoia-fuelled raids are regularly monitored by witnesses, who watch in horror as they turn over the contents of the house, searching in vain for evidence that U is doing anything other than minding his own business and waiting - apparently in vain - for anything resembling justice.
A recent example of the Home Office's approach took place during one of these raids, when, as another member of U's support team noted in a letter to SIAC, four maps - of Brighton, the London bus network, Maidstone and Dieppe - were taken (although the writer also noted that, in an anonymous report about the raid, submitted to the court as part of the "secret evidence," the Maidstone map was described as a map of Folkestone instead). "It is not clear why these four were mentioned," U's friend wrote. "Given the overall context, one can only assume that the writer of the document thought such maps might indicate an 'escape route,' although since no ferries operate between Folkestone (let alone Maidstone!) and Dieppe, he would have had some difficulty with such a route. But in any case, it is hard to see why the Home Office would see an escape to France as a problem, since it regards his presence in the UK as a threat to national security, and is anxious to deport him."
He added, "While the report implies that these maps were found in isolation, as though they had been put together in readiness for an escape, nothing could be further from the truth. [The] house contains many hundreds of books and maps, and the maps confiscated by the immigration officials on that day were taken from a large pile of maps on the first floor landing; it appears that they selected those four from the pile for some reason - perhaps to deliberately give the impression referred to above, or for some other unknown purpose. It is of course possible that the intention was simply to demonstrate that such items were available in the house should U wish to take them, and this is consistent with the description in the document of the house as 'difficult to manage.' If this is the case, I have no doubt that [the landlord] and other members of the support group would be happy to help the immigration staff identify, in advance of any future searches, any such items in the house that are considered in any way 'sensitive' or 'dangerous,' and arrange for them to be stored somewhere outside U's reach."
Reviewing the government's "secret evidence," Mr. Justice Mitting again responded with admirable restraint, hinting that, if there were problems with where U was living, then another bail address could be found, but he made it clear that the government had not established a reason to revoke his bail. However, rather than making a ruling at the time, he said that he would wait until all the cases had been reviewed. This, he said, would take about three weeks, and he added that he would notify the men's solicitors of his decision by letter, rather than in the court.
You will, I hope, forgive me if my conclusion seems to be rather harsh about the government's actions, but it seems clear to me that the government is particularly annoyed about U's case because a number of British citizens, appalled by their own elected representatives' refusal to adhere to what the Independent correctly called "the principle that everyone in Britain should receive a fair and open trial before being imprisoned," have responded by standing together to protect a man they have come to know from further arbitrary punishment, which, to the government's displeasure, has involved keeping a close eye on its activities.
To my mind, this is nothing more than British citizens exercising their right to monitor their own government, and, as with the men held at Guantánamo, if the government doesn't like it, it can do the right thing: put the men on trial, find a way to produce evidence that does not compromise its sources, and allow this evidence to be challenged in a fair and open manner. Otherwise this cruel farce will continue, seemingly without end, wreaking havoc on the mental health of those subjected to the government's whims, endangering our commitments to oppose all use of torture, undermining 800 years of habeas corpus, and incredibly, requiring that we accept at face value the assertions by politicians and the intelligence services that their supposed evidence is beyond reproach, and that they are incapable of making mistakes.
As written exclusively for Cageprisoners, reposted to Indymedia with the authors permission.
For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportations and extraditions, see Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees (August 2007), Britain's Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain's law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain's dubious extradition request (December 2007), Britain's Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed (February 2008), Spanish drop "inhuman" extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009).