Taken in isolation, few would dispute that Britain would be better off without Abu Qatada. The radical preacher has a long history of association with, and fostering of, violent Islamism; indeed, he was described, by a Spanish judge, as “Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe”. Yet the Home Secretary yesterday lost yet another attempt to deport him. And – problematic though the outcome may be – the ruling from the appeal court is still the right one.
Abu Qatada was convicted on terrorism charges in absentia in Jordan in 1999. Were he to return to his homeland, he faces a retrial; and, for all the promises of humane treatment wrung out of the Jordanian government by an increasingly desperate Theresa May, such a trial might include evidence obtained under torture.
The judges' conclusion is certainly an awkward one. Although Abu Qatada is now back in prison – for allegedly breaking his bail terms – he cannot be detained indefinitely, despite his being considered highly dangerous by security experts, the Home Secretary and also the courts. The Government says it will not give up on attempts to deport him, but its options are rapidly narrowing and the likelihood that Abu Qatada will remain in Britain, with some degree of liberty, is increasing.
Unappealing as such a prospect is, however, it still cannot trump the principle at stake. Defendants must be protected from allegations resting on unreliable foundations, regardless of moral judgements on the individual in question. The law must protect all equally, otherwise it protects none.
It is a notable irony that those who shout the loudest against the Human Rights Act – and who were reprising the theme on the subject of Abu Qatada yesterday – use the law themselves to justify opposition to new press regulation. The blame for the Abu Qatada debacle does not lie with human rights rules, nor with our recalcitrant judges. It lies with the decision not to put so unsavoury an individual on trial for terrorism offences, in Britain, in the first place.