Christina Patterson: Even bad people have rights


He doesn't have a hook. He does have a big bushy beard, and eyes that don't look all that friendly, but Omar Mahmoud Othman, who's also known as Abu Qatada, doesn't have a hook. It's Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, who's also known as Abu Hamza, who has a hook instead of a hand.

It's quite easy to get them confused. Both men live, when they're not in prison, in big houses, with their wives and children, and both men seem to think that the British taxpayers who pay for those houses, and their children's food, and their lawyers, and their food in prison, and the specially adapted taps you need in your cell if you have a hook instead of a hand, are infidels who should be slaughtered.

Abu Hamza, who once worked as a bouncer for a strip club, used to preach at my local mosque. He used to tell people that if you didn't like other people's religious beliefs, then the best thing to do was kill them. He didn't, he said, believe in democracy. But what he did believe in was human rights.

He was so keen on human rights, or at least on his human rights, that he got the best lawyers to make sure they were upheld. When, for example, the American government wanted him to go to the US, to be tried for supporting a terrorist training camp, and British courts said he could, he made sure his lawyers launched an appeal. You'd have thought it might be tricky to fight a case like this when you were also in prison for encouraging people to murder other people, but it didn't seem to be. His lawyers said he couldn't go to the US until everyone was sure that he wouldn't be treated "inhumanely", and the European Court of Human Rights agreed.

So Abu Hamza hasn't gone to the US, where everyone seems to think he wouldn't be treated nearly as well as he is here. He has finished his sentence, but he's still in Belmarsh, while the British and European courts argue about whether he can go. If he's feeling a bit fed up about it all dragging on, he might well have been cheered up by some MPs. The MPs, who have just written a report about the "roots of violent radicalisation" went to Belmarsh to ask for his advice. They wanted, they said, to know more about the "drivers" of "radicalisation". And Abu Hamza told them that they were "grievance" and "guilt". He didn't say that it was the guilt you'd feel if you'd cost the taxpayer millions and still wanted to kill him. He said it was the guilt that "you were safe" and your "brother was not".

Perhaps when he said this, he was thinking about Abu Qatada, who isn't his real brother, but who shares so many of his views you might think he was. But if he's worrying about whether Abu Qatada is safe, he probably shouldn't. Qatada, it's true, has been a bit worried himself. He's been worried that he might have to go to one of the countries where he's wanted on terrorism charges, and in particular Jordan, which wants to send him to prison for trying to blow tourists up. Qatada knows, because he's from Jordan, that prisons there aren't very nice. Qatada would prefer to stay here. He has employed lawyers to make sure he does. And the lawyers seem to be doing very well.

When, for example, the Jordanian government wanted him to face justice in their country, his lawyers argued that that would break British and European laws on human rights, and the lawyers won. And when the British law lords fought that decision, the lawyers won again. And on Monday, a judge decided that the man who's regarded as the spiritual leader of al-Qai'da in Europe, and whose sermons were found in the home of one of the men who destroyed the twin towers, shouldn't be in prison at all. And will, apparently, be released in days.

Most people don't seem to be very happy that a man who has called for mass murder might soon be free to walk our streets. The Home Secretary isn't. The Attorney General isn't. Even the man who chaired the committee who went to ask advice from "Mr Abu Hamza" isn't. Most people will agree with the Home Office spokesperson who said that "this is a dangerous man". They'll think this isn't what he deserves.

And it isn't. Abu Qatada doesn't deserve to be lavished with legal protection. He doesn't deserve to be let out of jail. Abu Hamza doesn't deserve to be protected from a harsher legal system in America. He doesn't deserve his specially adapted taps. But the legal systems of this country aren't constructed around what people deserve. They're not constructed around whether people are nasty, or nice. They're constructed around whether or not they've broken the law. And whether or not a court can prove it.

There are plenty of countries in the world that imprison people because they don't like their views. This, thank God, isn't one of them. In this country, we don't keep people in prison because they've said nasty things. We keep them in prison because they've broken the law of the land. If Abu Qatada has – and it's quite hard to see how he wouldn't have – then it surely can't be that hard to find evidence to prove it. Evidence, that is, that hasn't been extracted under torture.

Either you believe in torture, or you don't. If you don't believe in torture, you don't believe it's right to send a British citizen to be tried by a country which may have used evidence gained by it. You might be quite tempted to, but if the law says you can't, you can't. You can try to get that country to agree not to use that evidence, as Britain is trying to do with Jordan, but you can't suddenly say that you didn't like torture, but now you do.

That new report on the "roots of violent radicalisation" defines "extremism" as "active opposition to fundamental British values" like democracy and the "rule of law". It also says that "sympathy for violent extremism is declining".

If we want our values to win, we have to stick to them. The relative comfort of some very nasty people might be the price we pay.