British Officials Try To Deport Cleric To Jordan

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A Muslim cleric from Jordan went to the United Kingdom in the 1990s, where he gained asylum by claiming persecution. But he supposedly started preaching hate sermons. The British government wants to send him back to Jordan, but he says he'll be tortured there. Britain's human rights laws forbid deportation to a country that tortures.


The British government is trying to deport a Muslim cleric from Jordan, and it's complicated. The government accuses Abu Qatada of glorifying terrorism, but he can't be returned to Jordon because he might be tortured there. The British detained him in the first place because they said he was planning to flee the country. So now the government is holding a man it wants to deport because they thought he was planning to leave. NPR's Rob Gifford tries to sort this out.

ROB GIFFORD: There is plenty about Abu Qatada that makes him unpopular with the British public. He came to Britain on a fake passport from Jordon in the 1990s, claimed and was granted asylum, and his wife and many children live on state benefits.

He's also a fiery Islamic preacher, who has railed against what he calls the corrupt dictators of the Muslim world. As a result, there's no shortage of advice for the British government about what to do with him, from the tabloid newspapers who call him Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, and from British members of Parliament, like Stephen Pound.

STEPHEN POUND: As far as I'm concerned he should be, if necessary, packaged up and dropped into Jordan as quickly as possible. Apart from a few lawyer-whores, who queue up like taxis to defend the indefensible as long as they have some vast (unintelligible) in hand, winging bed-wetting liberals who prepared to actually fund this absurd legal case. I can't think of anybody in this country who supports the idea of bringing a vicious, corrosive, poisonous basilisk into the bloodstream of our proud nation.

GARETH PIERCE: It's complete absolute rubbish, utter baloney. He is certainly not an apologist for Osama Bin Laden.

GIFFORD: Gareth Pierce is Abu Qatada's attorney. The softly-spoken human rights lawyer made her name when she successfully overturned the wrongful convictions of four Irishmen accused of being IRA terrorists. Pierce says Abu Qatada's case strikes at the heart of centuries-old British freedoms.

PEIRCE: Inevitably a deportee, a foreign national, a perceived radical, a perceived supporter of terrorism is going to attract no sympathy whatsoever. However, it's all the more important that we fight for the rights of those people.

GIFFORD: Peirce insists Abu Qatada is not a danger to Britain, and she denies claims that tapes of his sermons were found in the apartment of the 9/11 hijackers in Hamburg, Germany. What's more she says the British government is in danger of repeating the mistakes it made in Northern Ireland.

PEIRCE: Internment, we're now reproducing that. Shoot to kill, we're now reproducing that. Step-by-step the measures we took in Northern Ireland that turned the Republican community against us have been reproduced here in regard to Muslims. And if we don't see how this provokes reaction, then we are completely crazy. We have torn up the lessons of our own immediate history that could be profiting us enormously.

GIFFORD: There is a debate in Britain about the tension between individual rights and national security. And there's an even wider debate on what to do about the more numerous, and arguably more dangerous, homegrown British Islamist radicals. But out on the streets of London, the answers to questions about Abu Qatada and his human rights receive an almost universally blunt response.

MARGARET TANNEL: The law's a fool. The law's an ass.

GIFFORD: Shopper Margaret Tannel is loading her groceries into her car at a suburban London supermarket.

TANNEL: Send him back. No probs. Because the man's a danger, and the man's vicious. We're a silly country, and we're just harboring all these people, and I'm just fed up with it.

GIFFORD: Fellow shopper Brian Smith and many, many others feel the same.

BRIAN SMITH: What about our human rights? You know, we're sitting on the train with kids and family and that, and we're getting blown to bits. So send him back, straight back, yeah, tomorrow.

GIFFORD: The United States will likely soon be confronting a similar dilemma to the British government. President-elect Obama wants to close Guantanamo Bay, but, like the British authorities, he will then be faced with the question of what to do with dozens of foreign detainees who could be tortured or worse if sent back to their own countries, but who cannot be released in the United States.

Rob Gifford. NPR News, London.

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