A radical vows to fight Britain's expulsion plan
Britain has joined a Europewide crackdown on Islamic extremists.
LONDON — Yasir al-Sirri is no stranger to British courtrooms. Since he sought asylum here 11 years ago the Egyptian Islamic radical has been in and out of jail, and has successfully fought off attempts to extradite him on terrorism charges to both the US and Egypt.
Now, however, in the wake of July's London bombings, he faces perhaps his greatest challenge yet as the British government prepares to join a Europewide crackdown on extremist Islamic circles and deport dozens of individuals deemed "not conducive to the public good."
As European governments lower their traditional levels of tolerance for radicalism, they are redrawing the lines between civil liberties and national security in the face of terrorist violence.
"Anything can happen," Mr. Sirri says, with a shrug of his shoulders. "I am expecting something to happen."
Last week, the Italian authorities summarily expelled a Moroccan imam and two other Middle Eastern men, giving them no chance to appeal under powers introduced since the London bombings that killed 52 people on July 7.
France announced last month that it would be deporting a dozen or so North African immigrants it deems dangerous, using administrative procedures not subject to prior judicial review. "In France we are very well organized with regard to expulsions," says Guillaume Larrivé, an adviser to Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. "We don't ask ourselves major juridical questions."
European human rights activists are up in arms, complaining that those sent back to their countries of origin, mostly Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria, face torture.
"It is absolutely scandalous," says Jean-Pierre Dubois, president of the French Human Rights League. "Are human rights not for all humans, or have we decided that radical imams are monsters?"
The United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, also condemns the growing trend. "The risk is very high that these people would be subjected to torture," he warns. "Most of the Muslim fundamentalists' countries of origin unfortunately do have a clear record of torture."
Recognizing the dangers, the British interior minister, Charles Clarke, nonetheless insists that "it really is necessary to balance very important rights for individuals against the collective right for security."
Sirri, who runs the "Islamic Observation Center" in London, (he says it monitors human rights abuses in the Muslim world, but US and British police say it is a conduit for messages among Al Qaeda militants), would undoubtedly be arrested if he were sent back to Egypt.
The government there has been seeking his extradition from Britain for 10 years in connection with his alleged role in a 1993 assassination attempt by the "Islamic Group" against the Egyptian prime minister.
Britain, like other European countries, is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, and by a UN treaty, not to send anyone to a country where he or she runs a serious risk of torture. The British government, however, is seeking to circumvent this restriction by demanding diplomatic assurances from 10 Middle Eastern and African countries that they would not mistreat any deportees.
So far only Jordan, which has been widely accused of torturing suspects, has agreed to offer an assurance. Britain says negotiations with Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and other governments are still under way.
But no such understandings would be valid, insists Dr. Nowak, an Austrian human rights expert. "Jordan is already a party to the UN Convention against Torture," he argues. "Why should they suddenly stop torturing? They are already violating a legally binding treaty, so why should they not violate a nonbinding diplomatic agreement?"
The Egyptian government broke a similar promise it made to Sweden in 2001, when Stockholm deported Ahmed Agiza only on condition that he be well treated and given a fair trial, Nowak points out. Stockholm later complained that Mr. Agiza had been tried unfairly before a military court, and he complained that he had been tortured. Sirri trusts British judges not to rubber-stamp government deportation orders. "If the government gives any judge the political agreement between the UK and Jordan, he will throw it in his rubbish bin," he says confidently.
Mr. Clarke, on the other hand, said Friday he hoped that judges reviewing deportation cases would "recast the balance" between individual human rights and national security. "The right to be protected from torture and ill treatment must be considered side by side with the right to be protected from the death and destruction caused by indiscriminate terrorism," Mr. Clarke said in his speech last week.
British judges have long protected radical imam Abu Hamza al-Masri from extradition to Yemen, where he is wanted on terrorism charges, for example. His fiery sermons appear to have inspired one regular visitor, shoe bomber Richard Reid.
Clarke last month issued a list of "unacceptable behaviors" that would prompt deportation orders against foreigners living in Britain. It includes fomenting, justifying, or glorifying terrorist violence; seeking to provoke others to terrorist acts; and fostering hatred that might lead to intercommunity violence.
That would appear to cover websites carrying videos of British soldiers being blown up in Iraq or of hostages being beheaded, and the distribution of messages encouraging jihad from such figures as Osama bin Laden.
The move appears to enjoy strong public support. A poll carried out for the Guardian newspaper last month found that 71 per cent of respondents agreed that "foreign Muslims who incite hatred should be excluded or deported from the UK."
Announcing the list, Clarke insisted that it was "not intended to stifle free speech or legitimate debate about religions or other issues." Officials pointed out that the government had backed off a plan to deport foreigners who expressed "views the government considers to be extreme and that conflict with the UK's culture of tolerance."
That is not how Sirri sees things. "Tony Blair is changing this country from one respected for its human rights to a graveyard of human rights," he charges.
In Egypt, he says, military courts that the British government does not regard as fair have handed down three sentences against him: the death penalty, 25 years' hard labor, and 15 years' hard labor. If he were sent back, he says with a bitter laugh, "I don't know which one they would apply first."
Yasir al-Sirri is exactly the sort of man the British government hopes to be able to expel with its new, tougher deportation policy: He keeps very dubious company and the police are sure he is up to something, but have not been able to pin anything on him or put him on trial.
In Egypt, Mr. Sirri is thought to have been a leader of the radical "Gama'a Islamiya" group, and was sentenced him to death for his alleged role in an assassination attempt against the prime minister. But British judges have refused to extradite him to Cairo, citing weak evidence. Sirri claims he had nothing to do with the plot. He did, though, have ties in those days with Ayman al-Zawahiri, now Al Qaeda's second-in-command. And US authorities want him for carrying messages for Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life term for trying to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993.
Sirri was held in Belmarsh prison in London for eight months for providing a letter of journalistic accreditation to the two men who assassinated the Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud in 2001. But a British court finally decided he had been an unwitting accomplice in the affair, and let him go. Sirri insists that "I did nothing illegal in this country and I have not broken any law in this country." Islamic law, he adds, demands that "anyone who arrives here under asylum cannot do anything against this country. Tony Blair is just using [the London bombings on] 7/7 as an excuse to carry out his agenda."