There is a danger in this week’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Abu Hamza and four other Islamic extremists can be extradited to face terror charges in America. The danger is that it makes the court look reasonable and in doing so weakens the case for removing Britain from its jurisdiction. The Prime Minister did nothing to allay this fear when he appeared flattered by the court’s ruling, admitting only to a little frustration at the speed of its decisions.
But one apparently reasonable decision does not eliminate the court’s inadequacies, or the indefensible fact that Britain has to wait to hear from Strasbourg over matters of national security and sovereignty. Nor is this week’s decision final — Hamza and the others can appeal. The five men cannot be deported for at least three months, and even if they are finally sent to America, it will still leave Abu Qatada, who continues to live at UK taxpayers’ expense, in London. His extradition to Jordan, where he is wanted in connection with a bombing campaign, has been blocked.
The court is itself guilty of a form of fundamentalism. It reaches its decisions according to a series of absolutist principles, disregarding considerations of time, cost and the grubby realities of ensuring national security. A delay is inherently intolerable — justice delayed is justice denied. In the Abu Qatada case the court ruled that Jordan could not be trusted not to use in his trial evidence obtained by torture; yet the British government has worked extremely hard to win assurances from the Jordanians that a trial will be fair. If we are forbidden by the ECHR from co-operating with the legal system in one of the more benign countries in the Arab world, we are not going to be able to secure vital co-operation when we need it.
Had this week’s decision gone the other way, the consequences would have been grave.