Friday, February 08, 2008

Any hook will do to show subservience to the Americans


I MET that Abu Hamza once. Took tea with him, in fact. I'm taking a risk telling you this. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has decided to extradite the one-time club bouncer turned Muslim cleric to the United States to face terrorism charges, and if they can do that to one British citizen, which of us is safe?

(Apart from the suited gents of the far Right, of course, who can stroll out free in triumph for the kind of hate speech, or worse, that lands a Muslim brother in Belmarsh).

At least I don't have to worry about the job blacklist now, having reached pension age before New Labour raises it in fulfilment of its pledge to "Keep Britain working".

It is some years since I was faced with the dilemma of how to honestly answer the question on an application form, as to whether I had ever associated with any person who had belonged to an organisation prepared to "use violence for political ends". I could surely claim Maxim Ghilan's membership of the Stern gang was long spent, and I had no idea what some of my Irish friends had been up to at nights, but what about my Dad? As an impressionable 17-year old he had enlisted with a organisation reknowned around the world for using violence for political ends, just so he could get off the dole, cease being a burden on his widowed mother, and eat regularly. It also offered foreign travel. It was called the British Army. What my Dad had to say about serving the Empire, and what he thought of the officer class, certainly had its influence on me.

But I digress.

My encounter with Abu Hamza was only brief, and it was before he became famous. I'd gone to visit an Algerian fellow in Finsbury Park, and arrived to find the imam was also visiting. No different to having the vicar or rabbi to tea. While I listened and took notes on what our host had to tell me about the state of affairs in Algeria, I can't recall Abu Hamza in his easy chair having anything to say. Perhaps he was there to listen. Did my host seem a bit nervous, or is that media enhancing my memory? I was impressed by the cleric's deft balancing between hook and knee of his cup and saucer and biscuits. Some of us klutzes have more trouble with both hands.

I next saw Abu Hamza in person a couple of years ago, when I was taking part in a small demonstration at the Egyptian embassy, off South Audley Street, over the way Egyptian police had violently broken up a camp of Sudanese refugees. It was a Muslim-led demonstration - those at the front kneeled to say their Friday prayers - but non-sectarian. As one of those leading it said "They found Bibles as well as Korans on the ground after they cleared the people from the Cairo park".

It was towards the end of the demo that I saw Abu Hamza al Misri emerging from a side street and having a quiet word with some of the organisers. He is originally Egyptian, hence that "al Misri". I might just have imagined a smile of recognition when he saw me. Not very significant, but I thought I'd recount it just so as to keep the spooks busy filling in their files, or at least the amateur Mossadniks drawing "connections" on charts with their felt-tips.

It must be about ten years ago, when Abu Hamza had become notorious that I read a comment from former Tory MP and Minister David Mellor in the Sunday People denouncing the dangerous fanatic, and demnding to know "Who let him in the country?" I did some checking and realised that Abu Hamza, who trained as an engineer, and went to Afghanistan, as well as doing some work at Sandhurst, had acquired British residence and indeed citizenship in 1980. We had a Tory government then, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was full of praise for the Muslim guerrillas in Afghanistan, and the Home Secretary was none other than ...David Mellor. So I could write and answer his question, saying "You did!" My letter did not get published but then Private Eye took up the point, and Mellor was stung into replying that he had not been consulted on every detail. I can't see a Labour Home Secretary getting away with such arguments -"nowt to do with me, guv" - but then, come to think of it Mellor had been given a hard time over his toe-sucking exploits, allegedly in a Chelsea shirt, and who paid for the ice creams on his holiday, so I guess the media decided he was no longer worth bothering about.

Abu Hamza has been serving a sentence in Belmarsh on charges of incitement to hatred and murder, but it is four years since the United States asked for his extradition, and almost ten years since he was accused of having a real hand, or if you prefer hook, in terrorism and faced demands for extradition - to Yemen.

In December 1998, sixteen tourists were kidapped in Yemen. There was also evidence of a bomb plot there. It was reported that the group responsible was in telephone contact with Abu Hamza, and that he was running training courses for terror at the Finsbury Park mosque. Three British tourists and one Australian were killed when they were used as human shields during a shoot-out with the Yemeni rescuers, it was claimed.

In 1999, Abu Hamza’s son Mohammed Mustafa Kamel was sentenced to three years in prison in Yemen for his involvement in a terrorist bombing campaign when he was 17. He returned to Britain after completing his sentence in 2002. The Yemeni authorities had meanwhile made repeated requests to the British government for the extradition of Abu Hamza himself to face trial. The British government refused, it is said because he might face the death penalty in Yemen if convicted. It has also refused past requests from his native Egypt.

It is touching to see the consideration given to endangered species like Abu Hamza compared with that for failed asylum seekers who are sent back to whatever fate awaits them in countries far more repressive or violence-torn than Yemen. Or is there some other reason?

Abu Hamza, who lost both hands and an eye while working in Afghanistan, will probably be held in a “supermax” prison in the U.S., where inmates are locked up 23 hours a day in cells measuring between 48 square feet and 80 square feet with no natural light, no control over electricity in their cells and no view outside their cells, according to American press. They have no contact with other prisoners and no meaningful contact with prison staff.

I don't know what kind of life this is that he is being spared for, or how it can be justified. I guess it is shutting him up in more than one sense. Could it be that he has something to say which someone in power might be afraid of?

I can think of more deserving, as well as more prepossessing, causes for our concern than Abu Hamza. I am sure a lot of Muslims in Britain, and not least regulars at Finsbury Park mosque, will be glad to see the back of him, just as the tabloid press will miss the hook-waving bogeyman.

All the same, let us not forget that those who are now so keen to lock him away have more than once employed men just like him for their purposes, and are probably enlisting worse ones. But more generally, Iooking at how the British government was so reluctant to accept requests from Yemen for extradition, but is so ready to collaborate with the United States in handing over a citizen, we must ask whether this is more to do with the international pecking order than any reaI system of justice. It seems we know our place when America gives the orders. It's nothing to be proud of.



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