Court victory for Raed Salah deals blow to UK “anti-terror” policy

Close-up on posters of Raed Salah's face

Saturday’s court victory allows Sheikh Raed Salah to pursue legal action against those who tried to smear him.

Ashraf Amra APA images

After nearly ten months fighting to clear his name in UK courts, Palestinian activist Sheikh Raed Salah won his case against deportation on Saturday.

Salah is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, a political and religious organization. Upper tribunal judge Mark Ockelton ruled that Sheikh Salah’s appeal succeeded “on all grounds.”

In a big blow to the government’s controversial and politicized “anti-terrorism” strategy, Ockelton also ruled that “there is no lawful basis” for Home Secretary Theresa May to “implement the exclusion order that was based on exactly the same material” as the deportation order.

Salah had been banned from the country only two days before he entered legally in June 2011. Neither he nor the groups that invited him to the UK had been informed.

Ockelton wrote of May’s argument that Salah should be deported from the country that the tribunal considered it “to be very weak,” because she was “under a misapprehension as to the facts” noting that “she was misled as to the terms of the poem.”

The ban was based on a falsified version of a poem Salah had written, with the words “You Jews” inserted to incorrectly make it seem as if it had been anti-Semitic.

Salah’s solicitor Tayab Ali told The Electronic Intifada that the decision was “a decisive ruling by the upper tribunal.” It also showed “that the allegations against him were unfounded, wrong and malicious.”

Ali also suggested legal action could be pursued. “Now Shiekh Salah will carefully consider how to hold to account those who maliciously and wrongly tried to silence an important Palestinian voice,” he said.

Ali said they would ask for bail conditions to be dropped on Tuesday, when the working week starts after the Easter bank holiday weekend. The conditions include stipulations against speaking to the press or public, reporting daily to the police and wearing an electronic tag.

A spokesperson from the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), the group that had invited Salah to the UK for the June speaking tour, told The Electronic Intifada that they would on Tuesday try to find out if May would appeal the ruling. She said Salah now intends to return to Palestine as soon as the UK Border Agency returns his passport. In a press release, MEMO said “he goes home with no stain on his character or against his name.”

“Sheikh Raed speaks on behalf of millions of oppressed Palestinians and this is a victory for each and every one of them,” said Ismail Patel in a press release from Friends of al-Aqsa, a group which had supported Salah’s UK tour.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign director Sarah Colborne said in a press release: “I trust that there will be a serious attempt by the British Government to rely in the future on accurate evidence rather than inaccurate anti-Palestinian propaganda against someone who has a history of opposing Israel’s crimes.”

A blow to “anti-terror” strategy

The ruling comes as new details emerge about the case. Salah has been stuck in the UK since he was arrested in June 2011. Although he was released on stringent bail conditions in July, Salah has been working to clear his name since then. He has not been able to return home because he was told that his right to appeal would lapse should he leave the country.

Salah says the Israeli authorities have been out to get him, so would use expulsion by the British authorities in any way they could.

Seen as a test case, this development is a blow to Prevent, “the preventative strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy” policy. Established by the Labor Party government after the 2005 bombings on London, the current Conservative-led coalition government held a significant review of the Prevent policy, culminating in a major report published in June.

According to a recent report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, “The original [Prevent] strategy had attracted criticism for its alleged exclusive focus on Muslim communities, spying and unhealthy conflation of law enforcement with integration policy” (“Roots of violent radicalisation,” House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, 31 January, Introduction). The committee’s inquiry wrote it aimed to “test the evidence base” of the Prevent review.

But critics note the flawed ideology of the review, based on ideas developed inside neoconservative think tanks in the US, which has been described as New Statesman senior political editor Mehdi Hassan as “the so-called ‘conveyor belt’ theory of radicalization.”

In July 2010 a leaked memo prepared by officials for ministers on the cabinet’s home affairs subcommittee concluded that it was wrong “to regard radicalization in this country as a linear ‘conveyor belt’ moving from grievance, through radicalization, to violence” (“So, prime minister, are we to call you an extremist now?,” Mehdi Hassan, Guardian, 9 June 2011).

Fourteen pages from the new 116-page Prevent policy were submitted to the courts by the government as evidence against Raed Salah. The pro-Israel charity Community Security Trust, which was deeply involved in lobbying the government against Salah, has described the attempt to deport Salah as an “important test case” (“Salah loses deportation case,” The Jewish Chronicle, 26 October 2011.

But on 6 February, during the first day of the hearing that led to Saturday’s judgment, Mark Ockelton, the vice president of the upper tribunal, said in court that the Prevent policy actually had nothing to do with Salah’s case, because the policy was about prevention of terrorism. The First Tier Tribunal verdict had not found that Salah fostered terrorism, noted Ockelton.

Although the lower tribunal had claimed Salah “has engaged in the unacceptable behavior of fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK,” Ockelton said “inter-community violence” was very different from “terrorism.”

“I don’t understand how you fill that gap,” he told the government’s lawyer.

Neil Sheldon QC, the lawyer acting on behalf of Theresa May, argued that the process of “radicalization” was subtle, and implied that Salah’s rhetoric “if directed or filtered to a vulnerable person” might lead them towards terrorism.

Ockelton dismissed this as over-reliance on the precise wording of the policy without considering its overall purpose (i.e. the prevention of terrorism). Sheldon continued to argue that the policy aimed to address the ideological environment from which terrorism arises.

Government policy not revealed even to judge

On 8 February, the hearing continued, with Sheldon continuing along much the same lines.

Ockelton drew attention to the fact that the whole of the Prevent policy had not been revealed to him. While the 114-page policy review was published in June, the definitive list of “unacceptable behaviors” was not included in the review, and had also not been disclosed to him.

Part of this list appeared in the banning order served on Salah after his arrest on 28 June. However, the order made a point of disclaiming that “The list is indicative and not exhaustive.” The judge asked Sheldon how he could know whether or not the deportation was done in accordance with the “unacceptable behavior” criteria when there was no way of knowing what the full criteria are.

Despite the fact this list does not appear in the published version Sheldon said it had indeed been incorporated into the Prevent policy. Ockelton asked if it was the position of the Home Secretary that Prevent does not contain the list of unacceptable behaviors. Sheldon replied: “I’m tempted to say yes.”

The judge seemed unhappy with this situation, with the Home Secretary effectively relying on a policy, parts of which were secret. Ockelton insisted on the whole document.

Secret experts

Sheldon argued that as the one responsible for the decision to ban Salah, the Home Secretary has particular expertise and advice available to her which the court did not. This was the same line taken by the government since the beginning of the case. But Ockelton said that the upper tribunal was entitled to make its own decision.

Salah’s lawyer, Raza Husain QC, argued that this “expert advice” Sheldon was relying on had never been produced, and that it was starting to look as though it didn’t exist.

UK Border Agency internal opinion had been disclosed, but had stated before May’s decision to ban Salah that the case was “very finely balanced.” The only outside source the government had consulted was the Community Security Trust, who Husain argued were unreliable.

As previously reported by The Electronic Intifada, the Community Security Trust worked behind the scenes to lobby government departments to ban and later to deport Salah. Although it is a charity with a public remit of combating anti-Semitism, the CST seems to have a more assertively pro-Israel agenda behind closed doors.

The Electronic Intifada last year revealed secret documents proving the CST had denounced as “extreme” Israel-critical Jewish activists who they thought could be “used as character references for Salah.” The group is also known to have strong links to the Israeli government, allegedly including to the overseas Israeli spying outfit Mossad.

The New Cold War against “Islamism”

Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman, in a June 2011 article critical of the new Prevent strategy, wrote it was “a triumph for the hawkish neocon faction in the cabinet — the Cameron-Osborne-Gove axis” (“So, prime minister, are we to call you an extremist now?”).

Education secretary Michael Gove has also been on the advisory board of the Community Security Trust, as revealed by the Guardian in January.

Gove wrote a book in 2006 called Celsius 7/7, whose key argument has been summarized as “there is a phenomenon called ‘Islamism,’ a totalitarian movement in the mould of fascism or communism, and which should be fought with the weapons of war” (“Michael Gove: The modest moderniser,” The Independent, 27 September 2008).

Gove was also formerly on the international advisory board of NGO Monitor, an extreme Zionist organization that monitors and attacks organizations supporting Palestinian rights (including The Electronic Intifada). Gove appears to have quietly dropped this affiliation after he became a government minister in 2010.

The Electronic Intifada contacted a spokesperson for Gove to ask why he had stepped down, but multiple phone calls and emails were not returned.

Gove is a member of Conservative Friends of Israel and received the “Jerusalem Prize” from the Zionist Federation in 2008. He is also a trustee of the Henry Jackson Society, a charity-registered neoconservative think tank, and whose Statement of Principles he has endorsed.

The group’s media spokesperson, Michael Weiss, writing on his The Telegraph blog, was one of the early voices speaking against Raed Salah, uncritically spreading the falsified version of Salah’s poem that appeared in the Israeli press.

Questions about role of government propaganda unit

In an email seen by The Electronic Intifada, UK Border Agency Special Cases Directorate head Andrew Jackson asked one of his deputies, Rod McLean, to liaise with another government body about whether Raed Salah could be banned. “Rod — can you ensure our advice is coordinated with RICU,” he wrote on 17 June.

RICU, short for the Research Information and and Communications Unit, is a government propaganda agency. It was established in 2007 and has close links to the intelligence services. It is part of the counter-terrorism office and (like the UK Border Agency) is part of Theresa May’s Home Office (but is also funded by the Foreign Office and the Department for Communities).

In the Prevent policy, its role is described as coordinating “Government communications about the terrorist threat and our response to it and to facilitate and generate challenge to terrorist ideology and the claims made by terrorist groups” (p. 48).

In 2008, the Guardian revealed that RICU had used a BBC radio program as part of a propaganda operation to “taint the al-Qaida brand” (“Revealed: Britain’s secret propaganda war against al-Qaida,” 26 August 2008). Although it admitted being in contact with RICU, the BBC denied it had been used, describing the documentary as “completely independent and impartial” (“No compromise,” BBC News, The Editors blog, 27 August 2008).

RICU did not come up in any of the Salah court hearings, despite the fact that government lawyers were desperate to prove they had consulted sources apart from from the Community Security Trust. They cited the Foreign Office and the Department for Communities, but not RICU.

Unanswered questions remain about any role RICU may have had in the affair. Was RICU involved in the media disinformation campaign against Raed Salah, or did that come directly from May’s office? Or was RICU’s advice ignored by the UK Border Agency because Theresa May had already made a political decision to help out the Israeli government?

Charles Farr, the counter-terror director general, gave evidence to the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee’s January report in which he said: “Raed Salah, of course, was not a terrorist.”

“Don’t we talk to the Israelis?”

Committee chair and Labor MP Keith Vaz had asked Farr about monitoring who was entering the UK after Salah apparently was able to enter the UK despite a ban secretly issued on him two days beforehand. “Where are the spies in all this?” asked Vaz. “Surely somebody would know. Don’t we talk to the Israelis? Aren’t they watching who is leaving their country?” (“Roots of violent radicalisation,” Oral Evidence, 29 November 2011).

In its recommendations, the Prevent review said the government “will retain RICU, largely in its current form, but will expect much sharper and more professional counter-narrative products” (p. 52). It also talked about working to “identify and take action against propagandists for terrorism in this country and overseas” and ensuring “robust application of the unacceptable behaviors exclusion criteria” (p. 52).

This all sounds very much like the government’s now failed case against Salah. And the promise to “also look for a closer dialogue with a number of states overseas, from where propagandists may be speaking and travelling to communities here” sounds very much like the work done with the Israeli government to ban Salah from the UK.

In the long term, the effects of this ruling could be huge, with the government’s relations with pro-Israel groups such as the Community Security Trust potentially damaged. The ruling is also likely to be a serious challenge to the government’s ability to ban people from the country it deems to be “unconducive to the public good” based on politicized intelligence.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist based in London. He has lived and worked in occupied Palestine.