Monday, July 18, 2011

Palestinian speaker freed - but gagged

ON the same day that the resignation of Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson was followed up by that of assistant commissioner John Yates, the Yard's senior anti-terrorism officer, the police and the government have had another humiliating reverse.

Palestinian religious and political leader Sheikh Raed Salah was conditionally released today, after three weeks in British jails. The government's lawyer admitted on Friday that Sheikh Salah had entered the country legally.

This case has nothing to do with the 'phone hacking scandal and links with Rupert Murdoch's media empire that have led to the downfall of senior officers (with Stephenson dropping a broad hint that if he was culpable of lack of judgement, David Cameron was more so) But it too raises questions about the judgement, and influences on decision-making of the police and Home Secretary Theresa May.

Salah, mayor of Umm el Fahm and leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, had been invited for a speaking tour in Britain. He had given a talk in Leicester, and was on his way back to his hotel in London when he was arrested, on the night of June 28 .

Newspapers like the 'Mail' and the 'Express' promptly carried front-page stories suggesting that the Palestinian visitor was some kind of threat to the security of this country, and denouncing him as a "preacher of hate". Neither paper is known for its sympathetic coverage of Palestine or friendly attitude towards Muslims. But nor were they telling the truth about Raed Salah's record, or the quite open way he had entered the country, on a pre-publicised visit.

The suggestion that he had somehow sneaked past controls at Heathrow might remind us of the way the Express and others reported Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes had vaulted ticket barriers at Stockwell. Part of the rubbish fabricated to suggest armed police who killed him had reasonably thought they were pursuing a dangerous terror suspect. The officer directing that operation was Cressida Dick - now Assistant Commissioner, Specialised Crime, with a particular input on Olympic security, and perhaps even a candidate for the Commissioner's job.

The police officers who arrested Salah on the night of 28 June told him he was going to be deported because of immigration offences. Mr.Justice Stadlen noted in summarizing his reasons for granting bail that this point appeared on the police custody record. But a government lawyer admitted in court on Friday that when Salah had entered the country using his Israeli passport on 25 June he had done so legally.

Daud Abdullah, director of the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), who had invited Salah to Britain to give talks to politicians and academics, said: “We are confident that the release of Sheikh Raed will be the beginning of a successful attempt to exonerate him from the character slurs and allegations that have appeared in some sections of the media.”

Steven Kovats QC, the barrister presenting objections to Salah’s bail application on behalf of Home Secretary Theresa May, admitted that since no one had informed Salah of any banning order, he was actually entitled to board the plane to the UK and “didn’t do anything wrong in doing that.” This was what Sheikh Salah's hosts and supporters had said all along. In his summary, Justice Stadlen clarified Salah “was admitted lawfully” on a six-month visitor’s visa, and said it was accepted Salah’s entry was not in contravention of an exclusion order.

Although the judge freed Salah from custody he imposed severe conditions demanded by the Home Office. Salah will have to wear an electronic tag, report daily to an immigration centre and observe a 6pm to 9am night-time curfew. He will be barred from speaking to the public, or the press.

At a Parliamentary Select Committee hearing one week after the sheikh's arrest, Theresa May claimed she had personally signed an exclusion order on Salah two days before he entered. She said she deemed his presence “not conducive to the public good” since he engaged in “unacceptable behavior” — one of the legal grounds possible under the law on exclusions. May said there would be a “full inquiry” into why “something went wrong” – he was let into the country without even being questioned by the UK Border Agency (Home Affairs Select Committee: The Work of the Home Secretary, 5 July, Parliament TV).

But it became clear on Friday that Salah had been in the UK on at least four previous occasions between 1997 and 2009, and there had been no objections then from the government. Kovats said the government could not confirm or deny this, saying “we have no record of his movements” in our databases, but did not deny it was true. As an Israeli citizen, Salah does not need to apply for a visa before arriving in the country. Also, said Kovats, his passport was issued in 2011, so contained none of the old arrival stamps.

As Rezs Hussain QC, for Salah, probed into the Home Office rationale, it became evident part of the "unacceptable behaviour" alleged was supposed antisemitic incitement. The British press had cited an antisemitic “poem” they attributed to Salah. But under instruction from Salah, Husain emphasized he absolutely denies writing the poem and “finds it offensive” because of its anti-Semitic content.

The Home Office listed as another example of “unacceptable behavior” an interview with MEMO in which Salah advocated the Palestinian right of return and the boycott divestment and sanctions movement (“Raed Salah: Israel preparing to complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians,” MEMO interview, 14 June).
But exactly what he had said seemed unclear, let alone what was illegal or "unacceptable" about it. Judge Stadlen said in his summing up that he had heard no evidence to support the alleged statements.

Is the British government then anticipating Israeli legislation to outlaw views on Palestinian rights, or boycott and divestment?

It was revealed on Friday that on the same day May now says she signed the exclusion order, 23 June, two indictments against Salah were issued in a Jerusalem court. These related to an allegation of incitement from 2007 and an allegation of “obstructing a Police Officer” from April 2011. The government objection to bail also alleged that Salah has links with the Turkish charity IHH, which they said was alleged to have provided Hamas with aid – a claim rejected by IHH. The government submissions also alleged Salah has links to Hamas. Husain, acting on instructions from Salah, absolutely denied this.

We recently saw the bankrupt Greek government ordering its coastguard to intercept an aid flotilla trying to sail for Gaza. It has been variously claimed that the Israeli government promised to intercede with Greece's creditors, offered the country cheap natural gas, or agreed to supply tear gas because Greek riot police were running short. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu is reported to have promised to admit more migrant labour from Bulgaria and Romania if their governments agree to oppose Palestinian statehood in the UN.

Surely Britain, still one of the richest countries in the world, is not in need of such charity from the Zionist state (itself still biggest single recipient of US aid)? There has been speculation that the British government may take an independent line from the United States when the issue of Palestinian statehood comes up. But it seems the Home Office is being distinctly anti-Palestinian and even anticipating the Israeli government's wishes in its behaviour towards Sheikh Raed Salah.

Is this because the Home Secretary is anxious not to be seen as "soft" by right-wing tabloids like the Mail , Express and Murdoch's Sun?, Or because the kind of repression Netanyahu and co. demand against the Palestinians and Israeli Left accords with the kind of powers this government would like to have against its opponents here?

“We will continue to fight the Home Secretary’s exclusion order,” said Salah’s British solicitor Tayab Ali, who described bail as “the first step towards justice.” We don't have to agree with Sheikh Salah or his supporters to see the need to side with them against this government's attack on free speech.

(thanks to Asa Winstanley, and Electronic Intifada, for detailed reporting of this case, asides and opinions are of course my own).

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