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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Abu Hamza: Europe's judgment call

Abu Hamza: Europe's judgment call

Imagine the wave of indignation that would be swamping the British media if European judges had ruled that Abu Hamza could not be extradited

Editorial, Tuesday 10 April 2012 23.13 BST

Imagine the wave of indignation that would be swamping the British media if European judges had ruled that Abu Hamza could not be extradited to the US. In fact, no such imagination is needed, since the Sun jumped the gun anyway. Writing on the confident assumption that the Strasbourg judges would conform to the paper's caricature of them as liberal buffoons, the Sun called on Britain to defy the court and said Tory MPs had "finally lost patience" with it. One MP, Chris Heaton-Harris, told the paper: "We should tell [the court] to stick their judgment where political correctness doesn't shine – and send Hamza to the US to receive justice."

In fact the European court of human rights judgment authorised the UK government to extradite Hamza and up to four others to the US. This ruling matters for two reasons. The first is because it ought to shame the Sun and Mr Heaton-Harris for their populist prejudices – admittedly an unlikely possibility – or at least to cause them to reflect on why they called the case so wrong. The European court is certainly not beyond criticism, but Tuesday's judgment was a powerful practical corrective to the shameless assumption that judges, and the European court judges in particular, do not inhabit the real world. No one reading their judgment in the Hamza case, let alone taking the trouble to read their judgment two years ago at an earlier stage in the same process, has any justification for continuing to promote such a travesty of the truth.

The second reason is because of the substantive importance of what the judges actually said in their rulings. The court had previously had to decide whether Hamza and the others could rely on fair trials and proper treatment on remand in the US; and then – the subject of Tuesday's ruling – whether life sentences or detention in "supermax" high-security prisons there would breach their rights to protection against torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The judges' unanimous ruling was that these rights were not infringed in the American system.

This is not by any means a soft ruling. It is a tough one. American sentencing powers are very severe, American penal regimes even more so. US jurisdiction is contested in some of the cases. So is the ability of some of the accused to handle the regimes. These issues matter. But the US, in the court's words, has "a long history of respect of democracy, human rights and the rule of law". American sentencing and prison regimes, it added, were not out of proportion to the seriousness of the charges. Some were better than those in Europe. The human rights court is used to being accused of taking rights seriously – just as it should. This ruling is a reminder that it treats serious charges seriously too, which it also should.

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