Abu Qatada & legal aid

Quite right, Valerie Vaz MP. There are questions that must be answered about Abu Qatada’s outrageous legal aid bill of over £500,000. They are, however, more for ministers, largely in your own Labour party, than anyone else.

First, we should be told what legal advice was given to a string of Labour Home Secretaries as they pursued Mr Qatada under, first, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and then the Protection of Terrorism Act 2005. In 2001, JUSTICE consulted David Anderson QC, now the special reviewer on terrorism. His advice was that Part 4 of the Act, which allowed the indefinite detention of foreign nationals in certain circumstances, would probably be accepted by the courts in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but its legality would become increasingly challengeable as time went by. Lo and behold, the House of Lords did eventually come out against Part 4 at  time when it became increasingly illogical to differentiate the treatment of foreign and domestic terrorists after the events of 7/7. Who did the government consult? When? What did they say? Did ministers, scared of looking weak on terrorism, over-ride their advice?

The government not only lost under Part 4, it also lost later battles under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. This was rushed through Parliament just before an election. The Lords tried to stand up against control orders: many of them even slept in Parliament during an all-night sitting. They got brushed aside.

Jack Straw now says that was unfortunate. Too right, Jack. It was a disaster; cost a lot of compensation; gave rise to a lot of legal aid expenditure – including part of that relating to Abu Qatada.

Having lost on Part 4 and control orders, the government kept digging. They wanted Abu Qatada, by origin a Palestinian born in Bethlehem, sent back to his alleged home state, Jordan. The problem is that, on the torture front, Jordan has been a basket case. Every report on the Middle East from the UN Committee against Terrorism to our Foreign Office accepted in the 1990s that Jordan tortured detainees and suspects along with the other sorry states of the region – most of whose regimes have now deservedly gone into the dustbin of history. More costs as the courts have insisted, outrageously in the eyes of ministers of both major political parties, that the UK does not connive at torture or evidence derived from torture.

Second, let us ask again why, if Abu Qatada is so dangerous, he was never prosecuted. Can it really be that all the evidence against him is from wire taps that the government has banned itself from using? Did he never let slip an incitement to violence en clair that could have been used? Or was there another reason – an attempt to avoid embarrassment?

Because, finally, let us be told whether one reason for the government’s persistence in this case is because, as has been strongly hinted, Abu Qatada was actually an MI6 agent during the 1990s whose inflammatory sermons were accepted because he was ratting on Algerian exiles? He is evidently a much more complicated character than the demon portrayed in the press. He has twice offered to help in the release of hostages in the middle east: Norman Kember, who later stood bail for him, and BBC reporter, Alan Johnston.

Abu Qatada has now served pretty well the equivalent of a 20-year sentence. We, as society, need to be assured that this was appropriate and fair. That is not how it appears right now. And, yes. It is an outrage that we have paid half a million quid for Abu Qatada’s legal costs. It is the price we all have had to pay for the incompetence of government lawyers or intransigence of government ministers. Should we not consider surcharges against those responsible for this sort of expenditure? Particularly when, as Ms Vaz says, ordinary people are facing desperate cuts to legal aid.

About Roger Smith

Roger is an expert in domestic and international aspects of legal aid, human rights and access to justice. Roger is a visiting professor of law at London South Bank University and an honorary professor at the University of Kent. He is a solicitor and has been director of the Legal Action Group, JUSTICE and West Hampstead Community Law Centre as well as director of policy and legal education at the Law Society, London, and solicitor to the Child Poverty Action Group. Roger was awarded an OBE in 2009 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Law Society in October 2012

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