Yes, suspected terrorists should be free to walk the streets

This post was written by Owen on February 14, 2012
Posted Under: Civil Liberties,Criminal Justice,Human Rights,Terrorism

Abu Qatada is a nasty piece of work. Probably. From yesterday evening’s coverage of his release, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to find any specifics as to what it is he’s actually supposed to have done – according to the Guardian “judges accept [he] remains a threat to national security”, and the Daily Mail quotes someone who tells us he has “a litany of terror connections” but both are notably light on specifics. The BBC does have more details, but there seems to be a rather touching faith across much of the mainstream media that if the government wants to lock someone up without charge (especially, it seems, if that someone is brown and beardy), then we can take it as read that they must have done something, so we don’t need to be bothered with the actual details of what that is. Still, it seems unlikely that a man who’s given a sermon condoning suicide bombings and who was once found to be in possession of an envelope full of cash marked ‘For the mujahideen in Chechnya’ is completely free of links with Islamist terrorism, so let’s accept that he probably at least had such links in the past.

The fact remains, though, that he’s never been found guilty – or even put on trial – for any crime in this country. Committing terrorism is a crime. Conspiracy to commit terrorism is a crime. Inciting terrorism is a crime. “Having links to terrorism” isn’t. He has been found guilty in his absence of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts in Jordan – and the British government wants to deport him there – but they’ve been blocked from doing so for the very good reason that the evidence for his conviction was obtained by torture, which as you can imagine is generally held to throw the certitude of any testimony obtained by such into doubt. And since torture and unfair trials seem to be endemic in the Jordanian justice system, I’m also inclined to be cynical about any assurances Jordan’s government gives ours about how if we do deport him we can count on them not to mistreat him.

Of course, the inevitable response to this from many will be incomprehension that we should care at all how he’s treated. There’s hysterical tabloid outrage (such as in the Daily Mail link above) about how much it’s costing the British taxpayer to have him kept under house arrest for 22 hours per day, but no outrage whatsoever at the fact that he’s been detained – for literally years – and then placed under house arrest despite never having been convicted in a fair trial of any crime. But that’s how human rights work – they apply to everyone, even nasty terrorist sympathisers. Restricting someone’s freedom without a fair trial or deporting them to a country where they’ll be tortured isn’t OK, no matter how much we might – justifiably – wish they weren’t in the UK. And no, asking “but what about the human rights of the victims of terrorism?” as Tory MP Robert Halfon did on The World at One yesterday isn’t a sensible response. “Terrorists do it, so we should too” is about the most disastrously misguided principle to apply to criminal justice that I can think of.

It’s at this point that a rightwing troll (if we had any left here at TTE) would probably interject something like “so you’d rather have suspected terrorists roaming free in the streets would you?” The simple answer is yes, I would. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, but if we’re supporting the principle of universal human rights, we shouldn’t have to pretend that the people who need theirs upholding are nice people. Abu Qatada might well be a fundamentalist preacher of hate. But if we accept that it’s OK to lock him up then you’re tacitly accepting that we live in a society where you can be indefinitely deprived of your liberty without anyone needing to prove that you’ve done anything wrong. And it’ll take a hell of a lot of would-be terrorists to be walking the streets before I accept that.

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Reader Comments


Dear God.

Written By Mark on February 14th, 2012 @ 9:12 am
David Moss

Maybe I’ve misread your claim, but it doesn’t seem to me that “but what about the human rights of the victims of terrorism?” is equivalent to or implies “Terrorists do it, so we should too.” Rather, I think that the argument behind “what about the human rights of the victims of terrorism” is ‘people have a human right to life etc. which needs to be protected from terrorism and these rights outweigh the right of the might-be perpetuators to freedom.’ That seems a potentially valid line of argument, since I don’t even believe in rights as absolute constraints anyway and it is sometimes better to overrule some-one’s ‘right’ to freedom to protect others from harm.

Written By David Moss on February 14th, 2012 @ 11:54 am

David Moss: I agree in a fair few respects, but I’m not sure that line of argument is too fruitful in terms of the points raised by Owen about the lack of legal process being followed and the tacit acceptance of torture in the whole process. There are no plans to charge him, only to deport him back to a regime that uses torture to extract confessions. And while there may be a trade off between a ‘right’ to freedom and protecting others from harm, protecting everyone from the arbitrary whims of the government of the day is far more important than detaining and trying to deport someone because you don’t like what someone says and have some suspicions that he’s influenced in some nebulous way known terrorists.

Written By AdamP on February 14th, 2012 @ 12:15 pm
David Moss

@AdamP I agree about this particular case. I was just saying that the principle suggested by whatsisname Tory, isn’t a bad one.

Written By David Moss on February 14th, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

You’re right – it is, in principle, possible that there could be circumstances where repealing civil liberties was the lesser of two evils; I was essentially denying that such circumstances currently hold (and indeed that they only do so extremely rarely). The ‘it’ in ‘terrorists do it so we should too’ was meant to refer to respecting human rights in general. Like you I don’t believe in natural or inalienable rights, but the consequences of disregarding legal principles about detention without trial *are* far worse than those of releasing one fundamentalist preacher. Which is why I said ‘disastrously misguided’, not ‘logically invalid’ :P

Written By Owen on February 14th, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

Yup, the whole affair reads a little like an A-Level politics exam question – civil liberties v. safety of civilians from possible terrorist attack. And in general if the opposing sides of the argument are represented by a panel of judges who have examined the details minutely and newspaper editorial knocked out in 15 minutes by a cynical populist I know which side of the line I fall on. Two things interest me that lead on from this – 1. That there is seems to a be policy by politicians of both right and left to undermine the judiciary in the UK (using human rights as a convenient stick) – and that this is merely the latest case of ‘liberal’ judge bashing and that is the main reason why we’ve heard quite so much about this essentially irrelevant case – [meanwhile when a judge criticises government (eg Tom Bingham slamming Blair over Iraq) it rarely reaches the newspapers.] 2. The net impact of the kind of hypocrisy which marks out govn posturing of this kind, way the values we apparently espouse aren’t contigent on genuine threat but [borderline racist] government whim. If cultural mores follow the behaviour of those in the public eye and high office – it’s surely no wonder, as the right would have it, that we live in a ‘broken society’. The whole Qatada episode leaves a bad taste as our politicians outdo themselves in hyperbole, hypocrisy and moral pygmy-ism…

Written By JWA on February 14th, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

Would a sensible long-term response be to make it illegal to have terrorist connections?

I realise that the principle problem with this is that it takes too long to ascertain which groups are terrorist groups, and that it would be unfair to charge someone for being linked to a group which was not deemed a terrorist group during the period when s/he was linked to it.

Nevertheless, I think that with some well-thought-through restrictions on assembly and publication, it would be possible in practice. A study of the careers of Messers Pitt would help us work out both where the potential leaks are and how to cage and pitch the policy so that it works, rather than exacerbating the problem.

Written By Hugh on February 15th, 2012 @ 12:02 am

It seems like a fairly simple question to me.

If we have proof that he is intent on committing a crime, or that he has committed a crime we can put him on trial and sentence him if found guilty.

If we have no proof of any of these things perhaps he is not the most dangerous man alive that we have been led to believe and he should be free to go about his business.

Right now we have a situation where there is a simple assertion that he is a dangerous terrorist mastermind and the authorities are powerless to stop him because of those darn human rights.


The police have plenty of powers to arrest and attempt to convict people they can show are law breakers. The fact they have not done so tends to suggest they have no such proof.

Written By Jim Jepps on February 17th, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

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