Hosting Terrorists

The Europeean Court of Human Rights has today “found unanimously that an attempt by Italy to send a man back to Tunisia violated the ban on torture or inhuman or degrading treatment in the European convention on human rights”:

The court ruled that protection against torture is absolute and Saadi cannot be sent back, even though he has been convicted of terror-related offences in both Tunisia and Italy.

The judgment, from which there is no appeal, binds all the countries of the Council of Europe, including Britain. It throws into question Britain’s terror deportation programme, which relies on diplomatic assurances and memoranda of understanding with Tunisia and other countries.

A Home Office spokeswoman said nine people had been deported in the last two years based on assurances they would not be badly treated, but she would not say which countries were involved.

I’m not convinced that this is a ground breaking case. It sounds very much in line with the Jens Soering case, decided two decades ago, which involved a European who faced the death penalty if deported to the USA.

It isn’t clear to me from the news report whether it would impact upon deportation to countries which had undertaken not to torture deportees.

But, putting that to one side: it is a tricky issue, isn’t it?

I think it is quite right that we should not deport individuals to countries where they will be tortured. A country which deports – or even connives in the rendition – of a person who they know or suspect will be tortured, bears moral responsibility for any torture which takes place. If you oppose torture in all circumstances, as you should, then it does not do to argue that your country bears no guilt for what happens after deportation.

The flip side of the issue, however, a thornier one. Some of those awaiting deportation became terrorists after entering the United Kingdom. Some were engaged in what might politely be described as ‘radical politics’ before coming here: but they weren’t thought to present a threat to the United Kingdom when they were allowed in. In other cases, the nature of the person applying to enter the United Kingdom wasn’t known at the time, or was accidentally overlooked.

The more difficult it becomes to deport persons who are engaged in terrorist-related activities in the United Kingdom, the more hazardous it will be to accept applicants for asylum who present any risk that they might turn to terrorism once they get here.

Why, for example, would the United Kingdom grant asylum to a person suspected – perhaps unjustly – of terrorism in Tunisia, if they cannot be expelled if it later transpires that they are involved in terrorism related activities in the United Kingdom?

It might be argued that there’s no real cause for concern here. If a person who comes to the United Kingdom commits a criminal offence, then they should be imprisoned, as anybody else would be. After they’ve done their time, they can be let out. If they reoffend, then they’ll be reimprisoned. If their conduct is merely anti social, but not criminal, we have nothing to worry about.

However, was the presence of the jihadist, Omar Bakri Mohammed really a matter of no concern? He may well have committed no criminal offence: but he played an important role in radicalising a generation of jihadists. Fortuitously, we managed to prevent him from re-entering the country following his voluntary trip to Lebanon. However, how easy would it have been to deport him, if he had argued that his life was in danger outside the United Kingdom?

The rational response from a state which wishes to avoid becoming a haven for persons involved in terrorism, who cannot then be deported, is to take as few chances as possible. The temptation will be to exclude anybody poses any risk of contributing to the terrorist millieu that exists in the United Kingdom. Paradoxically, that is likely to involve excluding a good many people who are peaceful political dissenters, who will become model citizens if allowed into the United Kingdom, but who are at the greatest risk of being tortured if they are not granted asylum.

If persons refused asylum by us are subsequently tortured, what is our responsibility, as a nation?