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U.K.’s Fight to Deport Cleric Mirrors Old European Feuds

When the European Court of Human Rights blocked the U.K. from deporting a radical Muslim cleric accused of terrorism, one British politician was so incensed he called on the government to give “two fingers” to the Strasbourg, France-based tribunal.

That gesture, which folklore says dates from when English archers taunted French knights in medieval wars by waving the digits used to draw their bows, is a fitting symbol of British antipathy to the continent.

The U.K. hosted a summit last week on the future of the European Court of Human Rights even as relations were strained by a dispute over extraditing terrorism suspect Abu Qatada. The ECHR said the Jordanian, whose real name is Omar Othman, can’t be deported to his home country until it decides whether that would infringe his rights.

Qatada’s case, in which he claims evidence obtained through torture will be used against him, has revived old arguments about Europe’s role in British affairs. Prime Minister David Cameron wants to limit the ECHR’s remit, so it focuses on major cases and interferes less with national governments. Some British politicians want to go further and ignore the court’s rulings altogether.

“If you worry about the basic rights and freedoms of 800 million European citizens in 47 countries, the court does matter very much,” said Anthony Lester, a human rights lawyer and member of the U.K. House of Lords, who said the court works well for Britain.

Little Britain

“One, as a little Englander, can say ‘we’ll put two fingers up to all that,’ or, you have some solidarity with other countries,” said Lester, who has argued cases at the ECHR for more than 40 years.

Qatada won a January ruling from the ECHR blocking his deportation over the potential evidence from torture. As a result, he was released from a U.K. jail. The cleric was re-arrested on April 17, and U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May said he would be extradited, because Jordan assured her Qatada would get a fair trial that wouldn’t include evidence from torture.

The night of his arrest, Qatada appealed the human rights court’s rejection in that January decision of his claim that sending him to Jordan also put him at risk of torture. The ECHR said he can’t be deported pending a decision on that matter, prompting May to appear before the House of Commons and say the filing was improper.

‘Unambiguous Advice’

Testifying to the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee in London today, May said she received “unambiguous legal advice” from British officials that the deadline to appeal the January decision was midnight on April 16. “We are clearly arguing that it is outside the deadline,” she said.

The court was established in 1959 to enforce the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects personal freedoms and bars torture and inhumane or degrading treatment. It has been able to overrule British courts’ decisions since it was ratified by the country in 1966.

That angers politicians skeptical of the U.K.’s role in the European Union, who oppose any loss of power. Charles Walker, a Conservative member of parliament, has said the government should ignore the court and deport Qatada. The ECHR isn’t an EU institution.


“You must not delay in getting this scumbag and his murderous mates on a plane out of this country,” he said. “And in so doing, would you send a metaphorical two fingers to the ECHR?”

The British government has since made clear it supports the ECHR. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke praised the court as “one of the greatest achievements of modern Europe” at the Brighton summit on the future of the tribunal.

Representatives of 47 countries there backed a U.K. resolution for member states to do more, and for greater efficiency to clear a backlog of 150,000 cases.

The perception that the ECHR tells the U.K. what to do is wrong, said Richard Bellamy, director of the European institute at University College London.

Most of the time, the court agrees with British judges, Bellamy said. Less than 2 percent of cases the court heard since 1966 have resulted in local rulings being overturned. A 2005 decision that prisoners must be allowed to vote was one of the few examples of the ECHR imposing its will on the U.K., which opposed the move.

‘A Salutary Thing’

“Those very small number of cases that go against us is probably a salutary thing. It makes people think,” Bellamy said.

The court hasn’t just overruled the U.K. It also rejected an appeal by U.S. billionaire George Soros to throw out a 2002 French insider-trading conviction. In 2010, former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas won a ruling that a French court improperly convicted him of defamation for his book about corruption allegations at oil company Elf Aquitaine SA.

The ECHR’s independence is vital, said Bellamy. “People in power don’t like having the exercise of that power made difficult.”

Qatada can’t be deported until the ECHR’s Grand Chamber decides whether or not to hear his case. An argument between Home Secretary May and the court about whether Qatada’s appeal was made in time doesn’t matter, according to Lester, who said he will probably lose anyway.

“There is no point of law I can think of that would cause it to go to the grand chamber,” Lester said. “He’s certainly not going to get anywhere in Strasbourg.”

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