Bin Laden’s ‘ambassador’ freed from UK jail

Abu Qatada, wanted for terrorism around the globe, has been locked in British cells for more than six years. Now, since he has never been charged with a crime, he is set to be released.

Ten years ago, police raided a Hamburg apartment to find 19 video tapes filled with the fiery sermons of a radical Muslim cleric. Abu Qatada was the cleric’s name, and the apartment was that of Mohamed Atta – the terrorist mastermind who killed over 3,000 people in the Twin Towers attack of September 11, 2001.

Once described as Osama bin Laden’s ‘ambassador in Europe’, Qatada is now a wanted man in eight countries. He has defended suicide bombings, militant antisemitism and the mass murder of his enemies’ children. Yet now, Qatada has been set free. After letting him linger in British prisons for more than six years, the courts have decided that enough is enough. If police can’t charge him with a crime, they have to let him go.

How is such a thing possible? Commentators across the UK are aiming this outraged question at the European Court of Human Rights – which recently blocked attempts to deport Qatada to his native Jordan. But the same question could be asked about another aspect of the case: how can he have been held for so long without trial?

According to the ancient principle of habeas corpus, UK jails ought only to hold prisoners who have been charged with a specific crime. But, since 9/11, habeas corpus has itself been under attack.

The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act was the last in a series of laws that armed British authorities with divisive new powers to deal with suspected terrorists. Today UK citizens can be held without charge for 28 days – and foreigners can be held indefinitely.

In the USA, meanwhile, the ‘Patriot Act’ gave police access to private emails, phone calls and files; in Canada and Australia too, new laws have dented liberties cherished by many.

Without the special powers provided by anti-terror laws, police might have been forced to charge Qatada as they would with any other suspect. Other, similar preachers of violence – such as Abu Hamza – have been found guilty on an old and well-established charge: inciting murder.

Extreme measures

Supporters of special anti-terror laws say terrorism is a horrifying new threat. Habeas corpus is a good principle, but never at the cost of public safety. Civil liberties are for civilised people, they say – why should we give monsters who condone terrorism the benefits of a justice system they want to destroy?

Terrorist tactics are frightening and despicable, agree opponents, but terrorists must still be treated as humans, with the same fundamental rights as everybody else. This is part of what sets a good society apart from its enemies. We should keep faith that even-handed justice can combat wickedness – if we pass emergency laws we are accepting defeat.

You Decide

  1. Should Abu Qatada have been released?
  2. What is the problem with holding prisoners without charging them?


  1. Headline challenge: Write two catchy headlines, one to get people worried about Qatada’s release and one to get people worried about anti-terror laws. How can you use language to make an impact without being too misleading?
  2. Imagine you are a lawyer in a court case involving Abu Qatada. Write a closing speech to the jury arguing either that he should remain in jail or that he should be released.

Some People Say...

“Terrorists don’t deserve civil rights.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So is Qatada free to roam the streets?
Not quite. Even after he is bailed, he will still be under a control order – another innovation of the anti-terror laws. Qatada will be forced to remain in his own house for all but two hours of each day, and even when he is let out he will be kept under close surveillance. In spite of fears that he will become a figurehead for UK terrorism, it is unlikely he can do much harm under these conditions.
What of the anti-terror laws? Should we be scared of them?
Most people in countries where these laws have been enacted never come into contact with them. But their use against protesters has caused controversy, and there have been cases of innocent people being detained without charge. In 2008 Prime Minister Gordon Brown used anti-terror laws to freeze the assets of a bankrupt Iceland!

Word Watch

European Court of Human Rights
Unlike the European Court of Law, the European Court of Human Rights is not connected to the European Union. It was set up in 1959 to pass judgements based on the European Convention on Human Rights, which is signed by 47 states and intended to prevent human rights abuses. In Britain many leading politicians support the UK’s withdrawal.
Habeas corpus
The principle of habeas corpus, that nobody should be imprisoned without hearing evidence of their crime, is used all over the world. It originated in the English legal system. It was famously enshrined in the Magna Carta in 1215, although versions existed before then.
Abu Hamza
Abu Hamza al-Masri is an activist for extremist political Islam currently serving a seven-year prison sentence in Britain. He is almost as famous for the hook that he sports in place of a right hand as he is for the sermons in which he preaches death to non-Muslims.


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