BRITAIN reflected in the 1990s, as it did 100 years earlier, a view that those who didn’t immediately threaten the life and well-being of this country should receive refuge and with it the freedom to speak, write and yes, plot what they liked.
Often this gave protection to those persecuted in their own country for simply disagreeing. Sometimes a peace for thinkers to think the unthinkable but not to threaten the well-being of others.
And so, Abu Qatada, who judges here in the United Kingdom have described, in vivid terms, as one of the most dangerous terrorists, found himself able to preach and to meet others of a similar ilk at the Four Feathers club, plotting the long term downfall of everything we stand for.
As I know to my political cost, it was virtually impossible to get Parliament to agree to change the law on incitement. Comedians made fun of the idea that there was any real difference in a free society between those saying what they thought and those who thought the unthinkable advocating that others should turn it into terrorism and death for those around them.
The law was changed after the July 7 suicide bombings in London (and the attempted attack two weeks later) in 2005. Encouragement of terrorism could be a route to getting such individuals into court, and for Abu Qatada that surely should still mean the possibility of prosecution here in Britain.
But the struggle that has been going on for the last six-and-a-half years was to remove him to his home country of Jordan. A country that had already prosecuted him in his absence but where the European Court of Human Rights believed that witnesses had been subject to torture.
That European Court judgment last month accepted, as had the British courts, that the Memorandum of Understanding with Jordan was reliable and that this terrorist would not be tortured. What they didn’t accept was that the evidence against him would not have been obtained by torture.
The Home Secretary suggested in the Commons on Tuesday a possible appeal to the Grand Council, but this looks like a longstop and by then this man will be effectively free.
And so we go round and round in circles. We don’t want him and shouldn’t want him on our streets, for two hours a day never mind 24. We don’t want him in our country and we should have the right to remove him. But in order to protect his human rights we have to undermine our own.
For the right to be secure, free from the threat of terrorism and from those who incite it, has to be as powerful a balance as the rights of an individual not to be held indefinitely.
As Home Secretary, I was literally in the firing line in having to speak for those, that is the wider public, who didn’t immediately have a lawyer to speak out for them, while at the same time understanding perfectly well that the rule of law is paramount and that individuals must have basic rights which make a civilised society and a functioning democracy.
David Cameron, to his credit, has indicated that Britain would use its six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which is the only body that oversees the European Court, to limit its power. The 47 nations that make up the Council have been signally reluctant to curtail the ever increasing scope and self-determining power of the court.
The issue, therefore, is not one of flouting our own supreme court but having to deal with rulings from Strasbourg by those who have none of the consequences of their rulings and none of the pressure which rightly makes up a democratic state.
It is, therefore, incumbent on our Government to press ahead immediately with more than fine words. We need to get a grip of what can be referred to the European Court and some appreciation by the levels of the European wide judiciary of the real threat we face.
Just this week, the Royal United Services Institute warned about those who have the right to live in Britain who are currently fighting alongside al-Qaida in Somalia. The threat level within this country is understandably rising as we move towards the Olympics and Paralympics.
It is just at this moment that we need to be most vigilant and to be able to deal rationally with those who would threaten our lives.
So what is to be done? In addition to trying to make some sense of the judge’s ruling on bail conditions, which allowed this man out for two hours a day with theoretical restrictions on who he can talk to and what electronic equipment he can have, the most urgent steps now need to be taken.
Firstly, to get agreement with Jordan that a trial can be conducted without use of those witnesses that have been allegedly subject to torture. This is easier said than done, given that a defence lawyer can claim that anyone providing essential evidence did so under duress.
Secondly, take a further look at what evidence is held, what could be used even to gain a modest conviction and therefore hold Abu Qatada pending any changes that could be obtained in the rules of admissibility or disclosure of evidence, including incitement.
Thirdly, to recognise the nature of this individual. The watering down of Control Orders, now called Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (T-Pims) brought in by the Government at the end of last year, would, if applied in three months time when the bail conditions are lifted, put us at risk. All the restrictions on daytime movement, use of electronic/computer and mobile technology would no longer apply!
When I signed the certificate to secure Abu Qatada in Belmarsh Prison in December 2001, he had already absconded. It took us a year to apprehend him, and in that year he had been using sophisticated computer equipment from a flat within spitting distance of Thames House, the headquarters of our Security Service MI5.
We need to understand that his network, his contacts and his intentions remain in place. As we come to the Queen’s jubilee and to the most prestigious international sporting event Britain has hosted for 60 years, we can’t afford to put the civil rights of Abu Qatada before the human rights and protection of British people.