Leading article: The price of our civil liberties

Friday 20 February 2009 01:00

There can be no disputing that Abu Qatada is a poisonous figure. He has made a career of spewing out inflammatory nonsense about the West, despite living for many years under its protection. There can be little doubt either that Qatada's hateful rhetoric has helped to indoctrinate many young Muslims around the world into the creed of violent jihadism. A video of one of his "sermons" was discovered in the Hamburg flat of one of the 11 September hijackers.

All this makes Qatada an unwelcome presence in Britain. So it is understandable that the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights yesterday, that the Government should pay such an individual £2,500 in compensation, should have provoked public distaste. And yet the responsibility for this shambles lies not with the courts but with the Government, which saw fit to lock up Qatada, along with other foreign terror suspects, without charge in Belmarsh Prison following the terror attacks on the US in 2001. The Law Lords ruled in 2004 that the Government's action was disproportionate and unlawful. It was this ruling that the ECHR upheld yesterday when it ordered the payment of compensation.

The question of whether Qatada can be deported to Jordan, where he has been convicted in absentia of terrorism offences, is a separate one, and the Law Lords ruled this week that the deportation should proceed. But the issue of Qatada's detention between 2002 and 2005 in the UK exemplifies how the Government has undermined the rule of law under the banner of national security in recent years.

Unpleasant as Qatada is, there was no evidence (certainly none that would stand up in a regular court) that he had broken the law since arriving in Britain in 1993. The Government's response to this lack of proof was to lock him up indefinitely under the authority of a secret immigration tribunal, thus undermining the principle that everyone in Britain should receive a fair and open trial before being imprisoned.

This £2,500 payout is more than the loathsome Qatada deserves, but it is a small price to pay if it helps to preserve our civil liberties from the assaults of a government that seems unable to comprehend the very concept.

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