One of my favourite quotes of the last ten years, for a public display of unintentional black humour, came from a spokesman for Noraid, the American-based organisation which raises funds for the IRA.
This chap had been asked, a few days after 9/11, to comment upon the possibility that people might perceive some similarities of method between al-Qa’eda and the good ol’ knee-cappin’ Provos. The Twin Towers had collapsed and Americans were, for the first time, acquainted with the trauma of terrorism on their own soil. The Noraid man was quite outraged by the nature of the inquiry and eventually spluttered, ‘There’s no comparison at all. None whatsoever. The IRA always gives a warning.’
Now, to my mind, this attempted rebuttal falls some way short of actually clinching the argument. But it seems to have done the trick with the US authorities because, a little later, when George Bush’s government drew up a list of proscribed terrorist organisations or organisations which raised funds for terrorists, Noraid was notable by its absence. So, too, was the IRA. Various murderous and wacko Peruvians and Tamils and Colombians found themselves personae non gratae, along with a whole bunch of Arabs, as you might expect. But as far as the US was concerned, Noraid and the IRA were just tickety-boo, and so, at this very moment, money is still being raised for the punishment gangs and the arms dealers and the drugs runners in the shamrock-bedecked bars of Boston and New York and San Francisco and Chicago. Perhaps the Noraid man’s justification — that the IRA are kind enough to warn people before they murder them — was more powerful than I, in my naivety, had realised. Or maybe it’s that the US government did not wish to estrange the millions of its countrymen who, for reasons which entirely elude me, gain a certain sort of pleasure from pretending to be Irish and complaining loudly about ‘centuries of Bruddish Opprussion’. Or, then again, maybe the US government just couldn’t give a monkey’s about terrorism carried out against its most stoical and unwavering ally. Because there’s terrorism, you see — and terrorism.
I was reminded of the Noraid man’s contribution to the diverse lexicon of political humour by the recent travails of everybody’s favourite growling, hook-handed, fundamentalist Muslim, Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri. The incendiary sheikh is residing in Belmarsh prison awaiting extradition to the United States under this bizarre arrangement we now have with the Americans which seems to allow them to point the finger at British subjects and have them dragged stateside for trial — without the requirement of anything so irksome and tricksy as a burden of proof. It is, of course, strictly a one-way arrangement — as we shall see later.
The overwhelming majority of the charges against Hamza are for alleged offences which did not take place on US territory or endanger the lives of Americans. Indeed, Abu Hamza has never even set foot in America. Some of the charges relate to his alleged involvement in the kidnapping of four Western (but not American) tourists in Yemen. His stepson was involved and it is alleged that Hamza spoke to the ringleaders of the kidnap gang four times on the telephone. There is no suggestion that he was behind, or directly involved in, the kidnap itself, but nonetheless the Yemenis wish to talk to him and I suppose that one can understand their desire to do so. Extraditing old Abu to Yemen would at least have an element of logic about it, much though we Western liberals may worry ourselves about the equity and impartiality of the Yemeni justice system. But the Yemeni government has been repeatedly rebuffed.
Similarly, as British people were killed during the Yemeni government’s raid upon the hostage takers, and Hamza’s phone calls, whatever their relevance, were made from Britain, one could make a perfectly respectable argument for trying the man here. And indeed we’ve been attempting to cobble together a case against Abu Hamza for at least five years, but the thing has foundered because there is no evidence whatsoever against him. We are assured, by Mr Blunkett and others, that the Americans have found new evidence — in which case, why can they not share it with our own prosecuting authorities and as a result have the man tried here? Also on the charge sheet is the suggestion that Hamza attempted to set up a jihad training camp in Oregon, despite, again, never having set foot in the US. Why on earth would he set up a jihad training camp in a country where he has never been? And how would he do so?
As you might imagine, Hamza’s lawyer, Mudassar Arani, finds the whole business outrageous and, frankly, sinister — not least the fact that we are deporting someone to a country where he could face the death penalty, which is illegal. The bland assurances from the US that they won’t actually kill him, in the end, do not inspire a great deal of confidence either. ‘They can change the charges once he is extradited and they can forget their assurances about the death penalty. Anything can happen once he’s over there,’ says Arani. Her client, meanwhile, sits in a cell in Belmarsh prison in his pyjamas because he has not been allowed to wear his usual clothes (robes which make it easy for him, with his disabilities, to move around). He cannot feed himself because the prison staff have removed his hooks. Just think of it: the tabloids will be exultant: Hooky has lost his hooks! How we laughed. I trust that we’re all proud of this little bit of spite.
But I suspect it may be difficult to engage your sympathy for Abu Hamza so, luckily, he will not be the last British subject to suffer the iniquities of the one-sided and profoundly unfair Extradition Act 2003.
David Bermingham is a British businessman who may soon be standing before a court in Texas (and good luck to him) for alleged crimes which were committed against a British company (the National Westminster Bank and its British subsidiary) while on British soil. The Americans have a peripheral interest in the man and the Extradition Act has been invoked. And, thanks to Mr Blunkett’s new Act, there is not a soul over here who can prevent the process from continuing until he is before some alien redneck jury in Houston.
Britain’s foremost expert on extradition (and the author of what I assume is a deeply eminent tome, ‘Jones on Extradition’) is the QC Alun Jones. He is plainly aghast at the ramifications of the new Act. ‘Previously,’ he told me, ‘everybody knew where they stood. The courts knew what to do and there was a home secretary to take final responsibility if a foreign state wished to extradite a British subject. Not any longer. The Americans want somebody, and that’s it, they’re gone. There is no legal mechanism to stop it happening. There is a small checklist for the magistrates to consider and after that nothing at all. It is ludicrous.’
Perhaps Mr Bermingham, an alleged fraudster, does not command your sympathy either. And maybe the principle involved, as outlined by Alun Jones — that British people should be tried by British courts for crimes allegedly committed in this country, and that there should be due process and political responsibility if they are to face extradition to a country which, for example, regularly executes the mentally impaired — leaves you cold, too. After all, there is no smoke without fire, is there? They probably done it, these people, didn’t they?
Then you might at least find yourself disquieted by the profound lack of a quid pro quo. The 2003 Extradition Act is strictly a one-way street. From the Americans there is not the slightest interest or inclination in retu rning to Britain people who really are fugitives from justice; people who have allegedly committed serious crimes on British soil against British interests and indeed continue to do so in exquisite safety from their stateside havens. Yep, we’re back to the IRA and Noraid again.
The Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson has fought a very long and largely fruitless battle to persuade the Americans that IRA/Noraid is a terrorist organisation, too, and that bomb attacks carried out against British people — and the ubiquitous drugs-running and arms smuggling — is an evil every bit as antithetical to Western democratic values as the stuff perpetrated by the zealous nutters in al-Qa’eda. Despite his efforts, this simple fact remains: the US has never extradited to Britain for trial any alleged IRA member. Ever. The courts there mull it over and decide that yer loveable Oirish nationalists are not going to get a fair trial in despicable, colonialist Britain — and so extradition is refused.
According to a United States Department of Justice edict from 1977, Noraid is an agent of the Provisional IRA. There is copious evidence to suggest that Noraid has been gun-running for the IRA — and indeed its founding member, Michael Flannery, has said that he entirely approves of such activities. But there are never convictions; there are never extraditions. No action against Noraid is ever taken.
And get this — it is only six weeks since a United States court decided that it would be unsafe to deport a certain Mr Kelly to Britain. He was implicated in the brutal, unforgettable murder of two British corporals at an IRA funeral. You remember the television pictures, don’t you? Well, he’s still enjoying freedom in the US because they don’t trust us to try the man fairly.
And perhaps they are right. It is hard for us to view the IRA objectively, even in our courts. The countless years of the most bloody violence have been corrupting for all of us, right to the soul of our criminal justice system. Seen from abroad, we appear deranged by the mayhem and incapable of rational judgment.
Exactly the way in which the United States is now perceived worldwide, in fact, in the wake of 9/11. Do you think Abu Hamza would get a fair trial in the USA? Do you think he will arrive in New York innocent until proven guilty? Because you cannot have it both ways, as the US — suffused with such a frenetic paranoia about al-Qa’eda — believes it can. You either respect the judicial process and instincts of your own countrymen and, by extension, those of your allies. Or you don’t. At the moment, the United States wishes to have its cake and eat it.