Why American justice is on trial

After 10 years as the director of Fair Trials Abroad, Stephen Jakobi knows how to fight his corner. But nothing prepared him for New Yorkers' vitriolic reaction to his campaign on behalf of the al-Qa'ida detainees, he tells Robert Verkaik
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Stephen Jakobi is a lawyer who makes a business out of being unpopular abroad. After all, you don't win friends by cricitising the criminal justice systems of other countries. But nothing prepared the director of the campaigning group Fair Trials Abroad for the ferocity of the abuse from New Yorkers that followed his intervention in the debate over Camp X-ray.

All he had suggested was that the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba deserved a fair hearing. The next day his e-mail postbag was bulging with messages from New York cabbies telling him to mind his own business – but couched in language closer to the street parlance of Robert De Niro in the film Taxi Driver.

A more cultured voice from across the sea suggested that if he was so keen to see the al-Qa'ida and Taliban suspects properly treated, why didn't he offer to put them up in his own home?

After 10 years representing the underdog all over the world, Mr Jakobi knows how to fight his corner. In a letter to The New York Times he said he realised he was addressing the newspaper of choice for many of those who live in the area surrounding ground zero in Manhattan, where the personal losses were heaviest and feelings run strongest.

But he said that, at a time when the world was watching planeloads of prisoners being flown into Cuba, American justice would be forever judged on the treatment of these "helpless" detainees.

"As I understand it," he wrote, "smoke signals are coming from the United States administration that a military tribunal is being contemplated. Yet already your Secretary of Defense is acting in the role of prosecutor by stating publicly that these detainees represent the hard core of the terrorist organisations. It is impossible to understand how the type of tribunal required can match up to requirements of justice when its members are being drawn from those who are under his orders." Since he wrote these words his flood of hate mail has dropped to a trickle.

Mr Jakobi decided to set up FTA 10 years ago after the widespread public outrage over the case of Karen Smith, a British citizen arrested in Thailand for drug smuggling and tried without proper legal representation or redress. He used the pages of this newspaper to launch his mission: "To help citizens from the European Union accused of a crime in a country other than their own to assert their rights to due administration of justice."

In the decade since then he has used his limited resources to save scores of British and EU citizens who have been thrown into foreign prisons on trumped-up charges. But much of his work involves finding and securing proper legal representation for people who may have committed a crime under a foreign jurisdiction and now face a trial in which they are to be denied a proper defence. Today FTA, which is now a registered charity employing four staff, has never been more in demand.

In its annual report at the end of last year, Mr Jakobi remarked: "We are forced to conclude that 2001 was a bad year for democracy and the European citizen. The authoritarian nature of the European Council asserted itself in reckless abuse of citizens' rights. Whilst national police and law-enforcement officers could rejoice at the imminent prospect of increases in international powers of arrest, the vulnerable citizen was left without practical protection."

One case which helped Mr Jakobi to form this view was that of the group of planespotters who were arrested in Greece on spying charges last year. He says there has been no parallel for the treatment of the 14 British and Dutch holidaymakers in the European Community in the last decade.

"Since the British and Dutch governments have done everything they can to secure their release without result, it is obviously time for the European Council to consider the position and, to avoid double standards, exclude Greece from the issue of EU-wide warrants until the country's judicial system measures up to the European Convention of Human Rights."

He adds: "No European citizen outside Greece has any respect for Greek justice at the present time, and much practical work on raising the judicial standards of Greece and other countries must be done before the mutual confidence upon which all else depends can be established. Greece appears at present to be the weakest link."

The planespotters are required to return to Greece for their trial. Yesterday Mr Jakobi received written assurances from the Greek authorities that all of the 14 would receive a fair trial.

Many other cases in which FTA has been involved have received much less media attention. Few people have ever heard of Ian Stillman, a British charity worker jailed for 10 years in India for possessing cannabis. The 51-year-old, who is deaf, and also has an artificial leg after being injured in a road accident, was arrested in the foothills of the Himalayas in August 2000 and later charged with possessing 20 kilograms of cannabis.

Originally from Reading, Mr Stillman set up the Nambikkai Foundation in 1978 to provide training, employment and education for deaf people in India. He has been an adviser to the Indian government on deaf issues, and his work was the subject of a BBC television documentary in 1992.

Ever since he was jailed in June last year, FTA has been working behind the scenes to secure his release. Mr Jakobi says: "Mr Stillman is being held in a prison in Simla, north of Delhi. He has suffered some health problems and for a time was confined to a wheelchair."

FTA has argued all along that the original trial was unfair, because issues involving his deafness were excluded from the proceedings. The trial was conducted in Hindi, and the only way Mr Stillman could understand the proceedings was by lip-reading snatches of English translation from his lawyer.

Despite so much being wrong with his trial, Mr Stillman found out last month that he had lost his appeal. He still hasn't been given the reasons for this because the judges went on holiday as soon as they gave their decision. But Mr Jakobi has not given up hope. "We will do all we can to make sure that justice is done in Mr Stillman's case."

For the moment, though, the FTA's concerns are firmly fixed on Camp X-ray, where a number of European al Qa'ida and Taliban suspects are being held. Mr Jakobi wants the Americans either to return the prisoners to their home countries or to charge them with conspiracy offences surrounding the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Mr Jakobi says: "I do not believe that international law can deny the United States its right to try those suspected of being involved in acts of terror against its citizens. However, the difficulties of conducting fair trials against a background of national outrage are not to be underestimated." The reputation of US justice, says Mr Jakobi, is hanging by a thread. How the US responds now in one of its darkest hours may have enormous repercussions in the future.

"Thirty years ago the United Kingdom went through a similar experience with regard to terrorist bombings of civilian targets by the IRA in Birmingham and Guildford. The disgraceful treatment of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four by judge and jury has now passed into history."

In the case of the "Camp X-ray hundreds", history might not prove to be so forgiving.