The judge heading the panel assessing whether Palestinian civil rights leader Sheikh Raed Salah can be deported from the UK has cast serious doubt on the British government’s case.
CMG Ockelton, an immigration judge, said on 8 February that the original text of a poem by Salah was “completely different” from how it appeared in a government order banning him from UK territory. The original banning order had accused Salah of anti-Semitism, citing an altered version of the poem.
According to Ockelton, the decision by UK Home Secretary Theresa May to ban Salah had been based not on the original text, but a “Jerusalem Post inaccurate summary” of the poem. The case was heard by a panel of two judges at the Upper Tier (Immigration) Tribunal in London last week.
Salah’s appeal against deportation was the latest stage of his ongoing legal battle to clear his name of anti-Semitism allegations in UK courts.
Salah had arrived in the UK in June last year for a speaking tour, entering the country legally and without even being questioned, before it emerged several days later that May had banned him, but failed to serve the paperwork. He was arrested on 28 June but released on bail to virtual house arrest in July.
Relying on “misquotation”
On Monday last week, Ockelton, vice-president of the Upper Tribunal, Immigration and Asylum Chamber, agreed with Salah’s lawyers that there had been error of law in the lower tribunal ruling. He agreed to hear the substantial evidence again two days later, along with Susan Pitt, the second immigration judge on the two-person panel.
Neil Sheldon, a lawyer acting on behalf of May, admitted the government had relied on a “misquotation” of Salah’s poem in The Jerusalem Post. Salah’s lawyer Raza Husain argued the misquotation could only have been a “malign” attempt to defame the character of his client, not an innocent misunderstanding.
In a June 2009 editorial, the right-wing Israeli newspaper had added the words “you Jews” to the poem, making it appear anti-Semitic. The original Arabic version was printed in a 2002 edition of an Islamic Movement publication.
Husain also pointed to a UK Border Agency document from 21 June 2011 that admitted the agency had not been able to find the original text “despite extensive research.” The Electronic Intifada has seen this document. Despite this admission, May went ahead with her decision to ban Salah on 23 June.
The original text of the poem later emerged, as revealed by The Electronic Intifada in October.
Sheldon insisted that May’s decision to ban Salah had “principally” relied on the Jerusalem Post editorial, and that the poem gave rise to a “risk of hatred.” Ockelton questioned the value of May’s decision to ban since it was based on incorrect information.
Sheldon argued the government had never sought to base its case on the idea the poem was “expressly addressed to the Jews” but that the way Salah’s speech was reported in the press “is not to be discounted.” He argued that Salah’s presence in the UK was a “threat to public safety.”
Husain countered that the judges should give primacy to “objective meaning” rather than impact or perception. He argued that if there was any misunderstanding of Salah’s positions, it would have been the responsibility of The Jerusalem Post for “wildly exaggerating.”
Salah refutes the government case
The Electronic Intifada has seen a signed witness statement from September last year, in which Salah denied all accusations of anti-Semitism.
Replying to another accusation from the UK Home Office — the interior ministry — Salah denied using a “blood libel” against Jews in a 2007 speech in Jerusalem. He argued that the part of his speech in question should be understood as a symbolic reference to using religion to justify oppression. The comment: “what used to happen to the children of Europe, when their blood used to be mixed in the dough of the holy bread” was a reference to Christian holy bread during the Spanish Inquisition, and was not to be understood literally, he said.
He argued that the Home Office presentation of this quote with the word “Jewish” inserted in square brackets before “holy bread” (quoting the Israeli paper Haaretz) was “irresponsible and incorrect” and that the “proper context” would be to insert the word “Christian” in square brackets instead. Husain argued that while this was “vigorous language” that was no basis on which to curb Salah’s free speech.
The government also accused Salah of invoking an Israeli “plot” to demolish al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Husain argued that even “UNESCO [the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] has noted [the] threat to al-Aqsa mosque from excavations” underneath the mosque. Ockelton seemed to agree, suggesting it was “uncontroversial” to note that these tunnels have been criticized as unsafe.
Dubious role of the CST
Throughout the case, Zionist group the Community Security Trust (CST) has been the main source of information to the British government on Salah. The CST is known to have close links to the Israeli government. In December, The Electronic Intifada revealed that the CST had denounced several Jewish critics of Israel to the government as “extreme” in secret documents.
Salah’s attorney Raza Husain argued the CST was an unreliable source, and yet “there was not one document relied upon [by the advisors to May] that did not emanate from” the CST. He reiterated the testimony of his expert witnesses heard at the Birmingham lower tribunal that the CST was “flawed” because it conflated anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.
While Sheldon argued the CST was a legitimate source to consult, Ockelton pointed out there were no obviously Arabic names on a list of the trustees and board of the CST he was looking at. He asked Sheldon if any “moderate Arab views” had been consulted on Salah. Sheldon replied that he did not know. Husain later argued that “moderate Jewish” views had not been sought, let alone Arab views, pointing to a statement of support for Salah from the Jews For Justice For Palestinians group.
Salah defends “rights of the many”
Salah is the head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. He arrived in the UK on 25 June. Salah has said he is anxious to return home to his family and work but wanted to clear his name first, because he suspected that the Israeli authorities would use any deportation ruling as the latest episode in their long-running political campaign against him.
The Islamic Movement’s deputy head Sheikh Kamal Khatib told The Electronic Intifada that the Palestinian public stood behind Salah and were following his case in the UK closely. They understand the trial is not a criminal one but a political one instigated by the Zionist lobby, he said. Khatib was speaking at a seminar organized on 7 February by the London-based organization Middle East Monitor to present the views of a delegation of leaders from the Palestinian community inside Israel. Khatib said the delegation’s visit to London had been organized as a gesture of support for Salah.
In his earlier signed statement, Salah recalled explaining to one prison officer in July that “I had to be patient, that my case was a political, not a criminal one and that I was defending the rights of the many who would lose out if I compromised.”
Salah’s legal team expects the court’s ruling to be posted within the next two weeks.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist based in London who has lived and worked in occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org