Andrew Grice: Subversive – or just a supporter of human rights?

Wednesday 06 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Two years ago, I tipped Sadiq Khan in The Independent as a rising star and MP to watch. I didn't know him then, but was reflecting rave reviews by his Labour colleagues. He wrote me a nice letter and offered to buy me lunch, a rare event in my 20 years at Westminster. We got on well and have kept in touch since.

Khan duly began to climb the ladder, becoming a government whip when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister last June. What I wouldn't have predicted was that Khan would become known to the wider world as the MP whose conversations with a constituent in prison were bugged by the police. Nor that, as the BBC told the nation yesterday, some police officers regard him as "subversive". That really did surprise me.

Khan was chairman of Labour's backbench home affairs committee, so we've often talked about issues such as identity cards and anti-terror laws. True, he voted against Tony Blair's plans to extend to 90 days the maximum period for which suspected terrorists can be held without charge. But so did almost 50 other Labour MPs, the Tory opposition and the Liberal Democrats.

Are they all subversives? Khan did not like ID cards but voted in favour because they were in the manifesto on which he was elected to Parliament in 2005. He helped to win some concessions, such as the need for another parliamentary vote before ID cards become compulsory. Even Gordon Brown opposed the Blair scheme in Cabinet and now, while backing ID cards in principle, seems to be having doubts about making them compulsory. Is the Prime Minister subversive too?

Before entering the Commons, Khan opposed the Iraq war. So did 120 other Labour MPs in the crucial Commons vote. I could go on. These days Khan is working inside Gordon's big tent. As a member of the Government, he will soon have to vote to raise the limit for holding terror suspects from 28 to 42 days. That makes him an unlikely revolutionary.

So it seems the "subversive" tag has been hung round Khan's neck because of his work as a prominent, and effective, human rights lawyer before he became an MP. That is when the bugging began. He scored some notable victories over the Metropolitan Police by representing black and Asian officers and victims of police misconduct, including the families of people who died in custody. Some led to landmark rulings which made case law. So it would be surprising if he hadn't made enemies at Scotland Yard.

I don't know about the case involving Barbar Ahmad, the man Khan was visiting in jail when he was bugged. The United States wants to extradite Ahmad for allegedly running websites supporting Chechnyan and Taliban terrorists.

In Khan's eyes, a schoolfriend and constituent has not been charged with any offence in this country and, to his knowledge, no evidence has been produced against him.

Since it emerged on Sunday that Khan's visits were bugged, the MP's life has been turned upside down. Camera crews have been camped outside his home. His six and eight-year-old daughters have been told by their schoolfriends that their dad has been spied upon.

Khan is strong enough to handle the pressure, as he showed in a restrained and dignified appearance on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. He is angry – about his family being dragged into it, the bugging, being branded a subversive, and Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, being embarrassed that his officials knew about the surveillance but didn't tell him.

But what worries Khan most is the damage this affair will do to relations between Muslims and the rest of the community. He has worked tirelessly to persuade fellow Muslims to trust the British system and work within it. Now he is being inundated with messages of support which also tell him he was wrong, because he has been bugged and labelled a subversive. "We told you so!" is their cry. These allies are itching to launch a campaign and hold demonstrations in his defence. He is trying to cool tempers and telling them to hold fire.

When Khan speaks at public meetings, he insists he is "MP for Tooting, not the MP for Muslims," but that is how he is viewed by many Muslims. He has said the hardline Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir "deliberately have the same effect as their mirror image, the BNP. They encourage hatred and their preaching is used by the BNP to foster fear of Islam".

If any police officers did describe Khan as subversive, perhaps they should have a word with their colleagues who work hard to improve race relations and ask them if they agree. If he's a subversive, then I'm a banana.

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