The detention of 10 foreign nationals in different parts of Britain yesterday as a prelude, the Home Secretary said, to their deportation, is a highly retrograde step. It takes civil and judicial rights in this country back to where they were before the law lords delivered their swingeing condemnation of the Government's anti-terrorist legislation last year - and then some. And it clearly has less to do with the law as such than with the new political climate that has come about in the wake of the recent attacks in London.
Almost everything about these detentions smacks of the sort of repressive society that Britain has traditionally not been and must never become. The individuals concerned were seized at dawn in co-ordinated raids. No charges were laid and none are in prospect. What is in prospect is their deportation to the very countries hitherto deemed too dangerous for them to return to.
It was striking, too, that while the Home Office was very keen to make the fact of the detentions as public as possible, it was more reticent about the names of those detained. Their identities were not and, according to the Home Secretary, will not be made public. The only reason we know that the radical Muslim preacher, Abu Qatada, is one of the 10 is because he was such an obvious candidate and because his lawyer confirmed it. What is the justification for such secrecy?
It is reasonable to surmise that others, if not most, of those now in custody were among those held without charge at Belmarsh prison before the law lords ruled that their continued detention was illegal. What we have now is nothing less than the implementation of those unlawful anti-terrorist measures by other means. The difference is that, rather than being detained indefinitely without charge, the 10 now in prison face deportation. This is lawful, the Home Secretary thinks, because, "following months of diplomatic work", he believes he has assurances that those deported would "not be subject to torture or ill-treatment".
One half-consoling aspect of this saga is the Government's reluctance to breach the Human Rights Act, which bars deportation to a country where a suspect might face persecution. It was in a laughable effort to comply with this provision that the Government introduced indefinite detention without charge for those it suspected of involvement in terrorism. Thwarted by the law lords, the Home Secretary signalled that he would seek another route. The assurances from Jordan and as many as nine other countries that those deported from Britain will not be mistreated conveniently allow Britain to claim it has met its Human Rights Act obligations.
Whether these assurances will be worth the paper they are written on is quite another matter. The record of most of the countries concerned, however, hardly inspires confidence. The fact is that, where Abu Qatada is concerned, the reason he has not been deported before is that he was legally in Britain having successfully claimed political asylum. And the overriding consideration when asylum is granted is the applicant's well-founded fear of persecution in the country he or she has fled. Such is the closed circle the Government has so ill-advisedly struggled to break.
The legality of the deportations is now likely to be tested before the courts - as it must be. In truth, though, there should be no need for another protracted judicial tussle over just how repressive anti-terrorism legislation may be. In a law-governed state which prides itself on its tolerance of free speech and its respect for rights, anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism should be charged, tried and judged under the law as it stands. Anything else is a betrayal of what we stand for.Reuse content