Interview | Shami Chakrabarti: “When fear stalks the land, people throw principles aside” [VIDEO]
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Saturday, November 9, 2013 0:00 - 2 Comments
This interview was conducted in September 2012, shortly before Talha was extradited to the US on 5th October 2012. Below is a transcript of the conversation. To watch the video interview, please scroll down.
Hamja Ahsan: Most members of the cabinet, when they were in opposition, wanted this forum introduced to the law, do you feel they betrayed their promises?
Shami Chakrabarti: It’s a huge disappointment that politicians who spoke so clearly against extradition arrangements in opposition have been so slow to act in Government. We’re now a couple of years into this Parliament and both coalition parties have gone back on their promises in opposition. The forum amendment, as it’s called, would be a very modest beginning to reforming our extradition laws and, at Liberty, we don’t think anyone should go anywhere without a prima facia case, we don’t think anyone should go anywhere when it would breach their human rights and when the offence isn’t a proper offence here in the UK.
But we also think that there should be discretion, just discretion, judicial discretion, not to extradite someone when they could more properly be dealt with here. And this is the forum amendment – creating a bit of discretion on the place where somebody is tried. This is not escaping justice, this is about making sure justice has a little mercy with it. It’s just completely ridiculous and disproportionate, especially for vulnerable people who never left this country in the first place, not to be dealt with at home, particularly when their offences are relating to internet use.
It would be just as easy for the foreign government that’s decided that a crime has taken place to report it to the UK authorities and urge the UK authorities to deal with the matters here. I found that with family campaign after campaign, the vulnerable people in question, they’re usually men (but not all men), they’re not asking for charges to be dropped. They’re perfectly happy to have a fair trial and to answer the charges put. They just want them to be dealt with at home, because this is the country in which they voted for the law, this is the country in which they have some investment and some trust in the judicial system and in a jury of their peers, this is quite important too.
I remember when Christopher Tappin, who was a pillar of his local community in Orpington, was extradited recently to Texas. He was very upset that he was being sent whilst, for example, Abu Qatada ha[d] not been deported from Britain because he might face torture. And he thought the contrast between his treatment and Abu Qatada’s was a real scandal. He was upset about it, of course he’s upset, because he’s been extradited without proper evidence, but what I would say to Mr Tappin, and to anybody who identifies more with Mr Tappin than Mr Qatada, in a foreign court, before a foreign jury, you begin to look like Abu Qatada too. Because you are the other, you are the foreigner, and you’re accused perhaps of terrible crimes. In Mr Tappin’s case, he’s accused of being involved in arming Iran, which to a jury in Texas is terrorism.
Just as Abu Qatada who is a deportation case, not an extradition case, looks like a foreigner and a terrorist in Britain. So it’s important for people to feel they can trust a jury and obviously that’s going to be easiest when it’s a jury of your own peers in your own community. Now that’s not always possible and if I fly to America on holiday and I’m accused of doing terrible crimes there, I shouldn’t be able to escape justice by hopping on a plane back. And if all the evidence and the victims are in that country, there’s going to be a very strong case to extradite me to the United States. But when we’re talking about people who’ve never left their homes, let alone their country, when we’re talking about a country like the US that’s increasingly seeking to police the internet – the world wide web – extradition without safeguards becomes very dangerous indeed.
HA: The Extradition Laws were introduced in 2003, a few months after the Iraq War, do you view that as significant?
SC: I think that it was 9/11 that was probably the spur for the new Extradition Act and its arrangements. It was a moment of fear and when fear stalks the land, sometimes people throw principles aside and they lack the imagination to realise how some of these dangerous laws might pan out in practice. I think a lot of people in this country who now oppose summary extradition never thought it could happen to them, never thought it could happen, certainly to a Christopher Tappin, or a Gary McKinnon or an Eileen Clarke or all sorts of other people that this law has been applied to.
These are bad laws passed in the name of fighting terrorism. What people forget is that everybody and anybody could be accused of being a terrorist. And even if it’s not terrorism that you’re being accused of, you can be vulnerable to extradition for all kinds of offences. We’ve got couples in marital disputes – one partner is accused of international kidnapping. We’ve got someone who went looking for UFOs on the internet and he’s virtually branded a terrorist. And so it goes on. And you can imagine all sorts of other scenarios to which people will be vulnerable, sometimes just by their web activity.
I think the time to change this law has come. If you ask people what they think, they are with us on this. If you poll MPs, they’re with us on this. This is government that is dragging its heels. It is ministers who didn’t just criticise the Extradition Act when they were in opposition, they stood next to campaigners in the streets holding placards. That’s how big a disappointment this is and that’s why we’ve got to keep the pressure up. And mercifully, this is a people’s campaign, and a media campaign and a campaign of victims and supporters, cross-communities and across the political spectrum. So there is hope that we have to keep fighting.
HA: What do you think of the Scott Baker report?
SC: I found the Scott Baker report completely unintelligible. It was written, for the most part, by a very eminent barrister who does prosecution and extradition. If you see it from a governmental point of view, this is all fine. What you need is to see the human perspective of individual people. There is a perfectly logical argument that says, “nothing to hide, nothing to fear.” If you are innocent, you can go and get your fair trial on the other side of the world, don’t worry about it. That’s logical; it’s robot logic that ignores that we are not objects or machines, that we are flesh and blood human beings.
And yes, you might be able to get a fantastic trial on the other side of the world, even though you fear you wont, but what happens in the meantime is that extradition is a punishment in itself. You have been taken from your home and your family and your children and your ageing parents and your job and all of those things that make your life – and you’re still innocent. You haven’t been convicted of anything. Now, if you are facing charges at home, you may get bail. You will have some greater familiarity with your legal system, you’ll be able to have visits with your family. Your life will be, of course, turned upside down, but not as significantly as it is when you go to another country. This is the human logic, as opposed to the robot logic, that in my view, is missing from the Scott Baker report.
HA: Do you have concerns about the American prison system such as pre-trial solitary confinement and plea-bargaining system?
SC: have huge concerns about the American prison system and about aspects of the American criminal justice system. These concerns are shared by my counterparts, Liberty’s sister organisation, the American Civil Liberties Union. But at the end of the day, people who live in America, vote in America, participate in American society, have to try and reform their systems. They vote for them, or vote against them.
The worst thing about this is people who don’t sign up to those values, never voted for them, can find themselves catapulted across the Atlantic. America is a democracy and it’s for people to participate in the very, very toxic debate in the United States about crime and prisons and so on. It’s not fair for me, sitting at my computer at home in London, without even leaving my home, let alone the country, to suddenly find myself catapulted across the Atlantic or anywhere else. Not just to Louisiana but to Lisbon or anywhere where there is no real justification for it; because my alleged crimes all happened here and there’s no obvious reasons why it can’t be dealt with here. That’s sovereignty.
I’m a great internationalist, but sometimes internationalism has to be about human rights and not just the convenience of governments. It’s about putting people first in any justice system. That’s incredibly important. When government’s cooperate, they should remember to put people first. The irony, of course is, yes I am critical of many aspects of American law, and its penal and criminal justice system, but here’s the one thing that they’ve got that we don’t have – they wouldn’t let their people be extradited from the United States in these circumstances. If somebody is sitting on their computer in the US and they’ve never left, and they are of interest to the authorities here in Britain, they are not going to face summary extradition. They will not be released without evidence being proved in a local court first. So yes, we’re critical of the American system but there’s one important safeguard that it has, that we should have as well.
Hamja: Does the UK/US Extradition treaty compare to other European states such as France, Ireland, Holland, for example?
SC: I think that Britain gave up far too much. Yes, in the Extradition treaty with the US and the fact that it isn’t mirrored or balanced on both sides just demonstrates how much Britain gave up. But I also want to say that I think the EU arrest warrant provides insufficient protection even within the EU. I do want to put in a word for people who face Euro arrest warrants, possibly because they’ve spent a few days on holiday and they’ve been falsely accused, because there isn’t sufficient protection there either.
What’s interesting about the EU is that, sometimes on human rights, it’s been levelling down instead of levelling up, and they created an EU Arrest Warrant pretending that this is the United States of Europe with one legal system, when it isn’t. And they didn’t harmonise the protections in the police station for people in Europe, or the protections in court, or translation, or any of the human rights protections. They didn’t do that first, they tried to create a Euro arrest warrant first. And it’s the same attitude that we’re talking about with the treaty with the US. It’s treating people like pawns, like objects, with the convenience of their governments, and it’s not putting human beings first.
HA: Lotfi Raissi, an Algerian who was accused of training the 9/11 bombers and subsequently found innocent and is being paid millions of pounds in compensation, was arrested in 2001. If he was arrested in 2003 or since the Extradition laws have been changed, what do you imagine his fate would be?
SC: Lotfi Raissi is a famous miscarriage of justice; it was bad enough that he was locked up pending extradition to the US for so long under the old system, today he would be gone. That is a very poignant example of how dangerous this Extradition treaty is and how dangerous the Extradition Act is. Let me be clear, nobody is saying that there should not be extradition arrangements between countries. Of course there must be. People should not be able to hop across international boundaries to escape their terrible crimes.
But there have to be safeguards, because anybody can be accused of the most heinous crime. Anybody can be the victim of mistaken identity or false accusation. Black, white, Christian, Muslim, man, woman, anywhere in the world, and before anyone is taken from their home, their family, their language, their legal system, their life – a basic case should be shown in a local court. And where they’ve never left the country, there should be strong presumption that judges should be able to order that they’re dealt with closer to home.
Follow the Free Talha campaign on Twitter: @freetalha.
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Camera: Turab Shah.