Abu Qatada: Who is radical preacher named by Sunak in attack on Starmer during ITV election debate

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer clashed on national security and immigration in the first live TV debate of the general election campaign

Andy Gregory
Tuesday 04 June 2024 23:53 BST
Sunak and Starmer share opening statements for first General Election debate

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Louise Thomas

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Rishi Sunak has sought to attack Sir Keir Starmer on national security over his past work as a defence lawyer on behalf of radical cleric Abu Qatada.

In a fiery general election debate on ITV, the two leaders clashed over the issue of immigration and national security – with both seeking to criticise each other’s past work before entering parliament.

While Sir Keir accused the Tory leader of profiting from betting against Britain while working at a hedge fund during the financial crisis, the Labour leader sought to highlight his own credentials in “dealing with terrorist plots” while director of public prosecutions.

Abu Qatada fought plans to deport him from the UK
Abu Qatada fought plans to deport him from the UK (Getty)

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But in a response labelled “desperate” by the Labour leader, Mr Sunak accused him of working for “extremists like Abu Qatada and Hizb ut-Tahrir”, urging viewers of the debate to “Google it” and claiming “I’d rather have my job than work for Abu Qatada”.

The religious cleric, whose real name is Omar Othman, faced terrorism charges and was accused of being a “truly dangerous individual” and a “key UK figure” in Al-Qaeda-related terror activity.

The preacher – once dubbed by some as “Osama bin Laden’s ambassador in Europe” – fought extensively against his deportation from the UK, and in one of many court hearings, he was represented in 2008 by Sir Keir in his role as a defence barrister specialising in human rights cases.

In service of a fundamental pillar of British justice, the so-called “cab rank principle” compels barristers to act without discrimination on behalf of clients – if they are available – irrespective of their own opinion about the defendant or the case.

‘It is very important that everybody is represented,’ Starmer has said previously
‘It is very important that everybody is represented,’ Starmer has said previously (Getty Images)

Qatada was eventually deported in 2013 by then-home secretary Theresa May after 12 years in which he was held in high security prisons and under strict house arrest.

He was cleared of terror charges the following year and released from jail, after a Jordan court ruled there was insufficient evidence to convict him of planning the foiled “millennium plot” terrorist attacks in 2000.

Sir Keir has also previously defended giving legal advice in 2008 to Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir as it sought to overturn a ban on its activities in Germany, a year after the Tories began to demand a similar ban in Britain, according to the Daily Telegraph.

“I was chief prosecutor for five years,” he told The Sun. “I prosecuted with my team nearly a million cases a year, including terrorists, murderers and drug dealers.

“I was a lawyer before that and in the legal world, particularly if you’re doing criminal law, you represent people you don’t agree with. You know how it works in our legal system – it is very important that everybody is represented.”

Asked during Tuesday night’s debate if Sir Keir could be trusted with the UK’s national security, Mr Sunak said: “I don’t think the Labour Party can be trusted to keep this country as safe as the Conservatives. The world is a more dangerous and uncertain place since the end of the Cold War.

“I’ve made the decision to invest more in our defence, taking it up to 2.5 per cent of GDP, the Labour Party have not matched that and, worse than that, the person who would be deputy prime minister under Keir Starmer does not believe in our nuclear deterrent.”

The Labour leader could be heard repeating “shocking” in response to this statement, adding: “This is shocking.”

“Before I was a politician I was the director of public prosecutions, I was working on national security, I was dealing with terrorist plots”, he said, citing one prosecution he claimed involved plans to “bring down seven planes over the Atlantic”.

In a comment issued after the debate, a Labour spokesperson said: “In this country, everyone is entitled to a defence, which means lawyers cannot choose who they work for. That’s how our justice system works and why it is the envy of the world.

“If you want to understand who Keir is, look at his record as the country’s top prosecutor. With his leadership, the Crown Prosecution Service locked up 150 terrorists. They included the first conviction of an Al-Qaeda ringleader, the “liquid bomb plotters” who tried to carry out a British 9/11, and the first prosecution for chemical weapons production on British soil.”

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