x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Free speech and Palestinian cause a test for UK courts

The case of an Arab Israeli in the UK shows that Palestinians, Muslims, and Arabs can be deemed guilty even when proven innocent.

Last month, a British immigration court decided that Sheikh Raed Salah, a popular Palestinian leader, could be deported. Sheikh Salah has lodged an appeal in a higher court, hoping to block his removal.

But he is no asylum seeker, and has no desire to live in Britain. Sheikh Salah is appealing in order to clear his name of anti-Semitism slurs. He also says deportation would be used by the Israeli authorities to continue a campaign of politically motivated arrests.

Described by supporters as “The Gandhi of Palestine”, Raed Salah is leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel. His group is one of the most popular political forces among Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinians. He is renowned in the Arab and Muslim worlds for a popular campaign in defence of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque against Israeli encroachment.

He was visiting the UK for a speaking tour, and entered legally using his Israeli passport on June 25. He spoke at public events in London and Leicester, as well as a roundtable in Parliament organised by the Liberal Democrat peer  Jenny Tonge.

But three days after his arrival, Sheikh Salah was abruptly arrested by officers from the UK Border Agency (UKBA) for “immigration offences”. This stopped him attending a Palestine Solidarity Campaign meeting titled “Building Peace and Justice in Jerusalem” at Parliament’s Grand Committee room. He had been due to speak there on June 29.

How is it that an Israeli passport holder legally entering the UK – invited to speak to British lawmakers – can be arrested for immigration offences?

It turned out that Home Secretary Theresa May had on June  23 secretly banned the sheikh from the country. But the Home Office failed to inform either him or his people. In the 24 hours before his arrest, the notoriously raucous press got wind of the story and started putting out lurid stories of a “banned extremist” who had “waltzed” through Heathrow Airport border controls.

Sheikh Salah was detained for almost three weeks, released on conditional bail only after an appeal to the High Court. In September, a judicial review found his arrest and part of his imprisonment to have been unlawful (he had not actually committed immigration offences, as government lawyers were forced to admit).

But the case didn’t end there. Now the government is seeking to deport Sheikh Salah from the country “at the earliest opportunity”. What were they actually accusing him of?

The government has banned Sheikh Salah because his presence is deemed “unconducive to the public good” due to alleged “unacceptable behaviour”. This a part of the controversial “prevent” anti-terrorism strategy, brought in under a Labour government, but expanded by the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

This elastic term “unacceptable behaviour” is a reference to allegations of anti-Semitism circulated by right-wing and pro-Israel bloggers before the Sheikh’s arrival.

But these allegations were based on deeply flawed evidence at best, and outright fraud at worst.

In the exclusion order, the central justification for the ban is the accusation that he wrote a poem beginning with the line: “You Jews are criminal bombers of Mosques”.

But in fact, this line first appeared in a 2009 Jerusalem Post editorial which both the exclusion and deportation orders pointed to as their source. The Post cited an Islamic Movement periodical as the source of its quote, but a look at the original reveals that portions were altered and misrepresented.

An Arabic poem Sheikh Salah did write several years ago, called A message to the oppressors, was also grossly distorted and recast as a racist attack on Jews – when in fact it was no such thing.

The editors of the Jerusalem Post are not exactly known for their sympathy towards Palestinian political activism, so you’d think the Home Office would have checked the quote. But the UKBA case worker responsible admitted under cross- examination that the agency had not been aware of the original text.

After being presented with the evidence, the judges who made the First Tier Tribunal ruling in favour of deportation conceded that the original poem was not racist. They said they “must accept” expert evidence the poem was “not directed at the Jewish people as a whole but only at those among them who aim at Israeli territorial expansion and control at the expense of the Palestinians”.

The tribunal’s decision to allow the deportation is both deeply flawed and politically motivated.

Anticipating criticism, the judges defensively wrote: “It is not our task to rubber stamp” government decisions. Nevertheless, they write, it was “not our responsibility to find that the Secretary of State has proved each item of evidence upon which she relies”.

It seems that when it comes to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, the British government considers them guilty until proven innocent. Or in this case, guilty when proven innocent.

The UKBA has insisted the case was purely about “protecting the public”. But the judges expressed “concern that apparently the Secretary of State did not consult with any Muslim or Palestinian organisations”. They did not consult Jewish groups critical of Israel either.

Should this ruling be upheld in higher courts it would set a deeply worrying precedent for the British justice system. It means visitors accused by politicians of “unacceptable behaviour” can be expelled from the country, even when accusations against them are proven wrong in a court of law.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist based in London. He edited the newly-released book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation