The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has granted, by 16 votes to one, an appeal by three men in England who have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release. These sentences, the men claimed, breached their human rights according Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids ‘inhuman and degrading treatment.’ The court agreed.
In its ruling the court said, inter alia:
If such a prisoner is incarcerated without any prospect of release and without the possibility of having his life sentence reviewed, there is the risk that he can never atone for his offence: whatever the prisoner does in prison, however exceptional his progress towards rehabilitation, his punishment remains fixed and unreviewable. If anything, the punishment becomes greater with time: the longer the prisoner lives, the longer his sentence.
The court added that prisoners must have their sentences reviewed, with regard to release, after 25 years at the latest, and regularly thereafter.
At first sight, this ruling might seem compassionate; the judges clearly feel, or claim to feel, for the convicted men. But actually the sentimentality of the judgment is but the reverse side of its implicit brutality, as well as being an invitation to legal arbitrariness.
On Tuesday January 15, the European Court of Human Rights delivered a long awaited judgement. Four British citizens had sought from it a ruling that, on account of their religion, legal rights belonging to them under the European Convention (EC) had been breached. They claimed they had been breached first by their employers and subsequently by employment tribunals and the national appeal courts who ratified the treatment of the employees by their employers.
This week sees the unfolding in England of two long-running legal sagas upon whose outcomes the future of the rule of law there could depend. And not just there, its future could be affected throughout Europe and even beyond.
The first legal saga is the resumption of the British Government’s ten-year long battle to deport the radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada back to Jordan, where he awaits trial on terror related charges.
To date, Abu Qatada, whom England granted refugee status after he moved there from Jordan his wife and children, has successfully resisted all government efforts to deport him. He has done so by invoking his human right not to suffer torture or trial using evidence gained by its means.
During the long period in which he has been fighting this legal battle through the English and Strasbourg Courts, Qatada, along with more than a dozen other foreign terror suspects domiciled in Britain, have also been able to secure their release from custody by invoking their human right not to suffer (more than briefest period of) detention without trial.
After Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May had obtained from Jordan all the assurances she needed to render his deportation to it lawful in her eyes, Abu Qatada was arrested in the early hours last Tuesday morning, after his arresting officers had informed him that the deportation process against him had been resumed.
So confident was the Home Secretary that her department had finally closed all legal loopholes that had earlier enabled Qatada’s lawyers to prevent his deportation, she felt able, later that same day, to stand at the despatch box in the House of Commons from where government ministers traditionally deliver important statements, to announce, much to the general relief of all those present and much of the rest of the country, that by, the end of the month, Qatada would be on his way back to Jordan.
She had not counted on the ingenuity of Qatada’s lawyers quickly to spot and exploit a small loop-hole that had evaded both her eye and those of her legal advisors at her Department, or else that his lawyers had craftily opened up literally at the eleventh hour.
With less than an hour to go to mid-night on Tuesday, after which time which he would have forfeited all possible legal right to do so, Qatada’s lawyers submitted to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg an appeal against the ruling that it had made exactly three months earlier over the legality of his deportation. It was that ruling which had formed the legal basis on which the Home Secretary had been acting in resuming his deportation.