Imprisoned without trial but recalled to life

Mr Jamil El-Banna is supposed to live in London. He came from Jordan and the Home Office granted him refugee status in 2000. In 2002 he planned to set up a peanut oil processing plant in the Gambia. In November 2002 he was first arrested in the United Kingdom under anti terrorist legislation when he tried to fly to the Gambia. He had a battery charger in his luggage and that was ostensibly why he was stopped..

He was soon released and allowed to fly. As soon as he got to the Gambia he was immediately arrested held until March 2003 when he was sent to and interned in Guantanamo Bay. Mr Bush has described all Guantanamo Bay prisoners as “bad men” and that was his justification for keeping them imprisoned without trial.

Normally, people are only deemed “bad” by civilised societies if they break the law and are convicted of an offence. In olden days kings and princes would designate someone bad, and that took them outside the protection of the law; without trial and without justice they were fair game for anything.  

Mr El-Banna only deserved to be locked if it is first proven that he has committed a criminal offence. Heaven knows, there are enough offences that people can commit in relation to terrorism; there is no shortage of things that constitute offences. But Mr El-Banna has not been charged with anything, even though he has been in custody for five years. 

On 19th December this year Mr El-Banna was released from Guantanamo Bay and sent to Britain. By the time he got here Spain had issued an arrest warrant for him, and so Mr El-Banna was immediately re-arrested when he landed in the United Kingdom. It was reported that he apeared before the English Court looking dishevelled and bewildered; I am not surprised. At a hearing in court he was granted bail subject to conditions which included wearing an electronic tag.

The United States had held Mr El-Banna in custody for nearly four and three quarter years without charging him. His imprisonment for such a lengthy period without trial is now impossible to justify. If as soon as Mr El-Banna is released from custody (having been in custody for a total of 5 years including the time spent in the Gambia) he is charged with an offence it makes us all wonder why it was necessary to hold him without trial for five years. I am sure that Spain has not just come into possession of evidence; the United States should have released Me El-Banna to Spain years ago. 

Lots of things are done in the name of preventing terrorism; we have people demanding to see and take copies of your passport if you want to open a bank account, rent a mobile phone, and in some countries even book a hotel room. These things mostly do nothing to prevent or deter terrorism. 

Terrorism is a crime, it is not above or beyond crime, but its activity is pure criminality. To deter terrorism, like deterring crime, we need swift justice. Some people will carry out terrorism regardless of any deterrents, rather like a physcopath commits murder. They will not be deterred so they need to be caught tried and locked up.

Justice requires trying people accused of crime and if they are found guilty by a judicial process, punishing them. Imprisoning someone for five years without charge and no prospect of a trial is simply unjust.  

Every country enacts unjust legislation from time to time, even democratic countries. In the United States until only 147 years ago there was slavery in many parts of it – a wholly unjust law. In addition to it a Fugitive Slave Law required slaves who escaped from a slave state to a non slave state to be returned into slavery, another wholly unjust law. 

Henry Thoreau, an American philosopher, said in connection with slavery and the slave laws “The only government I recognize… is that that power that establishes justice in the land …never that which established injustice.”  Thoreau pointed out that non slave states were effectively enforcing slavery by returning slaves.

Massachusetts was a state where slavery was illegal. It was legal in South Carolina. If a slave escaped from South Carolina into Massachusetts Thoreau said that Massachusetts was enforcing slavery when it returned the slave and that was unconscionable.    

It took our U K government quite a few years to condemn the holding of people without trial at Guantanamo Bay; from Mr El-Banna’s story it seems that our government may have had some complicity in Mr El-Banna’s arrest and his ultimate detention for five years. In 2005 Mr Blair said, talking about the process of taking people from places like the Gambia to Guantanamo Bay, that he wanted to send out “a clear signal that the rules of the game had changed.” Vacuous nonsense, of course.

This is not a game and the principles of human behaviour are not such that they are capable of change like the rules of a game. Fundamental principles should govern our lives. These are unchanging.  What had changed were not the principles; the thing that had changed was that democratic countries are now assuming that they are entitled to deny people due process of law in order to protect those whom they govern.

This is the same justification that every tyrant and tyrannical government through history has used to justify harsh oppressive and unprincipled behaviour. Mr Bush and Mr Blair stand shoulder to shoulder with some very undesirable types in this respect. It is to the dishonour of Spain that they never requested Mr El-Banna’s extradiction while he was in Gauntanamo, and only asked for it when Mr El-Banna was on the flight back to Luton Airport.

The abuse of humanity by imprisoning people at Guantanamo Bay for five years without legal justification is something that the United Kingdom was complicit in. We stood guard for the imprisoners, the kidnappers, and any torturers and abusers, and it looks as though we still stand on guard for them. So the shame of the United States is also our shame and their crimes are our crimes and the crimes of all civilised nations.