UK officials are probably breathing a sigh of relief over the case of radical Islamic preacher Omar Othman, better known as Abu Qatada. After 12 years of court battles to deport him to Jordan and prolonged detentions in the UK and Jordan, Abu Qatada was acquitted and freed there allowing Home Secretary Theresa May to assert that “due process” had taken place in Jordan.
The UK says Abu Qatada got a fair trial because of its agreement with Jordan not to use confessions that the European Court of Human Rights, in a 2012 ruling against the deportation, said it suspected had been obtained under torture. But if the UK thinks it has won a free pass to use these questionable agreements in the future, it should think again.
On September 24, Jordan’s State Security Court exonerated Abu Qatada of any wrongdoing for his alleged involvement in a plot to bomb Christian tourist sites in Jordan and other targets in 2000. In June, the same court cleared him of involvement in a 1998 bomb plot. But in those trials, which I attended, Jordan appeared to violate the treaty by introducing without prior examination the very evidence it promised not to.
In both trials, the primary evidence was the confession of a co-defendant – the leader of each plot. Each allegedly conspired to carry out attacks in Jordan in concert with Abu Qatada, who was then living in the UK.
For the 1998 plot trial, the court brazenly upheld the legality of the torture-tainted confession and admitted it into the record, a clear breach of the treaty, while finding Abu Qatada not guilty on the ground that other evidence to corroborate the “legal” confession was lacking.
For the 2000 plot trial, the court took a different approach. Instead of admitting two statements by the co-defendant, the court quoted several lines from the UK-Jordan treaty on the exclusion of torture-tainted testimony, but then threw out the statements on entirely different grounds, saying that, “There is nothing irrefutable in them that points clearly to [Abu Qatada’s] agreement with the defendant…on the conspiracy which is the subject of this case.”
Nowhere did either ruling clearly acknowledge that the confessions might have been obtained by torture or exclude them on that basis, as the treaty required. In fact that second ruling smacks of a face-saving exercise, with the court unwilling to acknowledge that its previous admission of the same evidence had been problematic, while trying to find ways to ignore it. Whatever the explanation it is hardly consistent with international fair trial principles or the intention of the treaty, which is that such confessions should not be admitted as evidence.
Under the spotlight of high-profile terrorism trials followed closely by the UK and international monitors, one might have expected Jordan to come to grips with its troubled history of extracting confessions through coercion, at least for this one case. The treaty, however, did not deliver, and the two court rulings do not open the possibility of accountability for the officers involved in extracting the confessions.
Instead of spending millions of pounds and countless hours of negotiation to deport one individual, the UK might well consider pursuing a different approach, one that would address the systemic factors that permit the practice of torture in Jordan or other countries where the same issue arises.
First, the UK could press the other country to amend its criminal procedure law to permit lawyers to be present with detainees from the time they are arrested. In Jordan, for example, interrogators have 24 hours to pressure detainees to “confess” without obstruction.
Second, the UK could advise an ally that wants a high-profile suspect deported to overhaul its accountability system for these kinds of crimes. Security officers in Jordan, for example, have near total impunity for torture and other ill-treatment, in part because there is no independent mechanism to investigate abuse.
Internal police prosecutors and a special police court – rather than regular courts – are responsible for investigating and trying police in cases of alleged wrongdoing. For intelligence officers the process is less clear. Human Rights Watch has found no evidence that any intelligence officer in Jordan has ever been convicted on the basis of article 208 of its penal code, which forbids torture.
If the UK spent just a fraction of the energy that it devoted to deporting Abu Qatada to pressing Jordan and other allies in similar cases to amend these practices, any benefits from their efforts would extend to all of their citizens, not just to one.
Adam Coogle is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow on Twitter @cooglea