It is one of the long-standing riddles of the Israel-Palestine conflict that Britain and other democratic states do not appear to support genuine justice for Palestinians. While all MPs at Westminster will know the name of Sergeant Gilad Shalit, the single Israeli soldier being held by Palestinians who was captured while on active duty against the people of Gaza, few, if any, will be able to name any of the 7,000 Palestinians being held by Israel. Many of these prisoners are in Israeli jails under the system of “administrative detention”, which means that they are locked up without any charges being made against them; without any trial taking place at which they can answer those charges; and for an indefinite period. Israel is not the only state to use this repressive method of removing political opponents from public life, which has its roots in a 1945 law introduced by the British Mandatory Authorities; those bastions of repression, China and Burma, are two other countries which use this method to control political dissent, which puts Britain and the United States in pretty disgusting company.
For while David Cameron’s government is willing to condemn the human rights abuses committed in America’s Camp Delta in occupied Cuba, there are a number of men being held without charge or trial in Britain’s own version of Guantanamo Bay. We are talking about Long Lartin Prison in Worcestershire, where a number of men are being held without charge while they fight extradition to the USA. Their struggle against extradition has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Special Forces. That Bin Laden was killed rather than captured demonstrates what US-style justice now entails: extrajudicial killings, targeted assassinations and the absence of a fair trial, or any trial at all for that matter. America, it is obvious, simply cannot deal justly with those whom it suspects of committing terrorist acts. Ever since George W Bush launched his so-called War on Terror, the age-old legal principle of habeas corpus, “a writ which requires a person detained by the authorities be brought before a court of law so that the legality of the detention may be examined” appears to have been discarded. People are no longer regarded as innocent until proven guilty when charged with terrorism; they have to prove that they didn’t do something rather than the onus being on the prosecution to prove that they did. According to Britain’s ex-Foreign Secretary and Justice Minister, Jack Straw, it is “impossible to prove a negative”.
Can any government able and willing to lead such an attack on civil liberty and legal precepts can ever give a guarantee that men held in Britain without charge will not be subject to “extraordinary rendition” and taken to a nameless detention facility in a third country to be tortured? Or sent into the legal limbo of Guantanamo? Or worse, simply put up against a wall and shot the moment they arrive on US soil? This is not scare-mongering, but real fears for the well-being of the men concerned and for the British justice system.
Some of the men we’re talking about have been held since before 9/11; one, Saudi-born Khalid al-Fawwaz, has endured this pseudo-legal process for more than 12 years. According to US intelligence, he conspired with Osama Bin Laden to bomb two US embassies. This may be true, but none of us will know unless and until he is given a fair trial. What is certain, however, is that a key witness – Bin Laden himself – is now lying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean in a body bag. Such is the US approach to justice these days.
Prosecutors in New York have charged Fawwaz with helping al-Qaeda to orchestrate the 1998 car bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people. His lawyers claim that they have exhausted all efforts to fight his extradition, and he could arrive in America within the next few weeks. A request by David Kirby to be appointed as Fawwaz’s US defence lawyer has been denied by New York Judge Lewis Kaplan of Manhattan Federal Court. Kirby was told to reapply once Fawwaz arrives on US soil, so there are no guarantees that Fawwaz is even going to get legal representation. This has led some to ask a very pertinent question: if he is already being denied a lawyer before he arrives in America, is he going to be fast-tracked to an Osama-style execution? Such is the incendiary climate in America at the moment that this question is not as outrageous as it appears.
Fawwaz was arrested in 1998, after moving to London in the 1990s from Kenya with his family. In Britain he is alleged to have established an organisation called the Advice and Reformation Committee, a political group supposedly headed by Bin Laden that was said to be campaigning for peaceful reform in Saudi Arabia. US intelligence claims that Bin Laden, through Fawwaz, published several threats against the US in the 1990s for stationing troops in the Saudi Kingdom. Fawwaz has always denied any involvement with Bin Laden and rejected allegations that the committee was a British arm of al-Qaeda. However, now that US Navy Seals have assassinated a potential key witness – on the orders of their Commander in Chief Barack Obama – the defence has been denied a major opportunity. Evidence supplied by other witnesses has been extracted under torture and is therefore unreliable and inadmissible in most courts of law around the world.
Ahmed Ghailani, a former bodyguard for Bin Laden, was sentenced to life in prison in January for his part in the embassy bombings, following a six-week trial in Manhattan. He was the first former Guantánamo Bay detainee to face a civilian trial in the US and it is clear that he was tortured pre-trial. He was captured in 2004 in Pakistan after a battle with government troops and then sold like a commodity to US intelligence to be tortured. Unsurprisingly, he was later found guilty of being part of the plot to destroy the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Four co-defendants of Ghailani were convicted of all charges, including joining an al-Qaeda conspiracy to kill US nationals, during a 2001 trial in New York. All of this was during a period when the use of torture was sanctioned and signed off by the then US President George W Bush and his cabal of neocons, including Donald Rumsfeld.
It is worth considering that Bush and Rumsfeld, and their cronies, now face the risk of arrest whenever they travel abroad because they sanctioned the use of torture and crimes against humanity. Israeli politicians, sponsored and supported by their counterparts in the United States – or should that be the other way around? – also face the same sort of legal threat when they venture out of Tel Aviv airport, prompting the British government to change the law of Universal Jurisdiction for the benefit of its Israeli friends.
The killing of Bin Laden should cause every civilised country in the world to suspend extraditions to the USA and look for a viable alternative; the International Court in The Hague could be the answer. Nobody says that justice should be avoided, except the Americans and Israelis, perhaps, but justice must be seen to be done if it is to be worthy of the name.
If Britain hands over UK citizens and other nationals to a country with no respect for international law or the Geneva and Vienna Conventions, and which calls targeted assassination “justice”, then we will be lawless by association. The lack of any action against Israel over its detention of thousands of Palestinians without trial, including women and children, and the changes to Universal Jurisdiction, already make Britain complicit in the slow death of the international justice system. It is time to alter course and put justice centre-stage again in legal action against any and all prisoners, no matter what they are charged with, and especially when they are not charged at all. Only then will Britain and the West be able to claim with authority that our democracy is something worth defending.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.