Conor McCarthy is Visiting Fellow at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.
The European Court of Human Rights has handed down its long-awaited judgment in the case of Othman (Abu Qatada) v. the United Kingdom which, despite the initial furore that is likely to surround it in the UK, is also a case of substantial legal significance. The judgment sheds light on the circumstances in which it may be permissible under the ECHR (“the Convention”) to expel an individual to a third state where the use of torture is prevalent on the basis of assurances against torture or ill-treatment. Significantly, the Court also lays down, in emphatic terms, principles as to the permissibility of expelling an individual to face trial in a third state where evidence obtained through torture may be used in trying that person.
The Applicant’s Background
Abu Qatada is a high-profile radical Islamic cleric considered by the United Kingdom to be a threat to its national security and who is sought by Jordanian authorities (and indeed authorities in a number of other countries) in connection with a series of terrorist offences. He arrived in the United Kingdom in 1993 when he was granted asylum, having fled from Jordan where he had been tortured in detention in 1988 and 1990-1991. However, as he is regarded as a threat to national security, the UK has sought to extradite him to Jordan.
Bilateral Assurances on Torture or Ill-Treatment
As regards the question of MOUs or diplomatic assurances, some background is helpful. Following the September 11 attacks in the United States the question of the deportation of terrorist suspects, considered a threat to UK national security, to countries where they may face a risk of torture moved high on the political agenda. In 2001 the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised the government that Article 3 of the Convention precluded the deportation of terrorist suspects to Jordan. However, in 2003 a Government review of the possibility of removing such barriers to removal was conducted and it was proposed that certain key countries, including Jordan, could be approached to determine whether they would be willing and able to provide assurances to guarantee that potential deportees would not be subjected to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. Following this, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary agreed that seeking specific and credible assurances from foreign governments, in the form of Memoranda of Understanding (“MOU”), could be used to enable the deportation of certain individuals from the United Kingdom and in 2003 the British Embassy in Oman were instructed to seek such assurances from the Jordanian government.
Various negotiations ensued and a MOU was agreed between the United Kingdom and Jordan in 2005. On its face, the MOU provided that a receiving state would respect its obligations under international human rights law with regard to the treatment of persons returned under the MOU. In addition, it was specified that if a returned person was detained within three years of his date of return “he will be entitled to contact, and then have prompt and regular visits from the representative of an independent body nominated jointly by the UK and Jordanian authorities”. The MOU also specified that the receiving state will not impede consular access to the sending state by a person deported under the MOU.