Qatada wins if we drop the Human Rights Act

It is nearly 14 years since I first met Omar Mahmood Abu Omar, the man known to the world as Abu Qatada.

He was sitting on the carpeted floor of a book-lined room in north-west London, every bit the picture of a man of Islamic learning. I remember him as a jolly, avuncular figure, gently spoken and charismatic.

I was the first British journalist to interview the man who has since become the iconic figure of Islamic radicalism in this country. How different things were then: nearly two years before 9/11, five years before 7/7. At the time, Abu Qatada was simply an “Islamic dissident”, one of many who had found shelter in Britain as authoritarian regimes across the Middle East cracked down on Islamist activism.

The Palestinian cleric was wanted in Jordan in connection with series of bombings. Like many liberals, I found his views utterly abhorrent. But I also accepted that it would not be right to send him back to a country where he risked being tortured.

Abu Qatada always claimed he was a simple teacher. And he has taught us a lot — that it is possible to inspire acts of terrorism without planting a single bomb; and that it is difficult to maintain the balance between national security and individual human rights.

Now he is back in Jordan, Home Secretary Theresa May wants to use his case as an excuse to rip up the Human Rights Act which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

This would be a catastrophic error of judgment. As David Cameron recently reminded us, the ECHR was drafted in response to the Holocaust. It was not designed to protect that likes of Abu Qatada and it could be argued that he subverted and undermined it. But it would be his greatest triumph if his case were used to deny the convention’s protections to British citizens in the future.

Last updated: 4:45pm, July 11 2013