A landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling blocking the deportation of a Jordanian cleric from the UK was today described as "one step forward, two steps back" by Amnesty International.
The Court found that if the UK deported Omar Othman, also known as Abu Qatada, it would violate his right to a fair trial because any proceedings in Jordan would likely involve the use of testimony from people who had been tortured.
However, the court also accepted as valid the UK government's argument that in some cases 'diplomatic assurances' can mitigate the risk of torture. The UK wants to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan on grounds of national security.
“The European Court has taken a positive stand against torture by preventing the deportation of someone whose trial would be likely to include evidence gained through torture," said Julia Hall, Amnesty International’s expert on human rights and counter-terrorism.
"But this development is tarnished by the Court’s conclusion that diplomatic assurances can, under certain circumstances, be sufficient to reduce the risk of torture.
"This is an alarming setback for human rights and a case of one step forward, two steps back.”
The Court concluded that the use of torture evidence, which is prohibited under human rights law, is illegal, immoral and nullifies the right to a fair trial.
But it also found that deporting Abu Qatada based on diplomatic assurances negotiated between the Jordanian and UK governments would not violate his right not to be tortured or otherwise ill-treated.
“Diplomatic assurances are no substitute for respect for the legal obligation not to send a person to a place where he is at real risk of torture," said Julia Hall.
"People have been and will continue to be harmed by such attempts to avoid binding legal obligations by securing inherently unreliable and unenforceable promises.”
Abu Qatada, a Jordanian national with a refugee status in the UK since 1994, was convicted in absentia in two separate trials in 1999 and 2000 in Jordan for terrorism-related offences, and sentenced to life imprisonment and 15 years’ imprisonment respectively.
He appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in February 2009 after the UK’s then highest court, the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, gave the go-ahead for his deportation to Jordan based on diplomatic assurances that he will not be subject to serious human rights violations.
“In the last decade, especially in the counter-terrorism context, we have seen governments chip away at the ban on torture," said Julia Hall.
"Unfortunately this decision will further contribute to the erosion of the prohibition on torture by giving governments a ‘green light’ to secure unreliable diplomatic assurances to justify sending people to places where they are at risk of torture."
In October 2009, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Justice submitted a joint intervention to the European Court raising concerns about the practice of relying on diplomatic assurances to justify transfer of individuals to countries where they would face a real risk of being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.