After nearly three weeks in British jails, influential Palestinian activist and religious leader Sheikh Raed Salah was conditionally released today. He had been granted bail in the High Court on Friday, where The Electronic Intifada watched as the British government’s case against him floundered.
Leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Salah had been on a speaking tour in the UK when he was abruptly arrested on the way back to his London hotel on the night of 28 June. The full legal case against a government order banning him from the country is likely to be heard in September.
“We will continue to fight the Home Secretary’s exclusion order,” said Salah’s British solicitor Tayab Ali, who described bail as “the first step towards justice.”
In a press release, Daud Abdullah, director of the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), who had invited Salah to Britain to give talks to politicians and academics, said: “We are confident that the release of Sheikh Raed will be the beginning of a successful attempt to exonerate him from the character slurs and allegations that have appeared in some sections of the media.”
Salah was not present at the High Court on Friday, but the small court room was filled with his supporters. Towards the end of a long day of debate, the judge, Mr Justice Stadlen granted bail. He then spent nearly two hours detailing his rationale. He also imposed several restrictive conditions the Home Office had asked for. Salah will have to wear an electronic tag, report daily to an immigration center and observe a 6pm to 9am nighttime curfew. Perhaps most onerously of all, Salah will be barred from speaking to the public. The Electronic Intifada understands that this particular condition will in effect bar Salah from speaking to the press as well.
Arrested during speaking tour
On the night of 28 June, arresting police officers had told Salah he was going to be deported because of immigration offenses. Stadlen noted in summarizing his reasons for granting bail that this point appeared on the police custody record. But a government lawyer admitted in court on Friday that when Salah had entered the country using his Israeli passport on 25 June he had done so legally.
Steven Kovats QC was the barrister presenting objections to Salah’s bail application on behalf of Home Secretary Theresa May. He said since no one had informed Salah of any banning order, he was actually entitled to get on the plane to the UK and “didn’t do anything wrong in doing that.” It was an admission of something his supporters have said all along. In his summary, Stadlen clarified Salah “was admitted lawfully” on a six-month visitor’s visa, and said it was accepted Salah’s entry was not in contravention of an exclusion order.
Some UK journalists and bloggers had falsely accused Salah of entering the country illegally. Salah had no problems with his Israeli passport at Heathrow airport, but anti-immigration sectors of the press used this point to paint a picture of supposedly lax British border controls.
At a Parliamentary Select Committee hearing one week after his arrest, Theresa May claimed she had personally signed an exclusion order on Salah two days before he entered. She said she deemed his presence “not conducive to the public good” since he engaged in “unacceptable behavior” — one of the legal grounds possible under the law on exclusions. May said there would be a “full inquiry” into why “something went wrong” – he was let into the country without even being questioned by the UK Border Agency (Home Affairs Select Committee: The Work of the Home Secretary, 5 July, Parliament TV).
But it became clearer on Friday that Salah had been in the UK on at least four previous occasions between 1997 and 2009, and there had been no objections then from the government. Kovats said the government could not confirm or deny this, saying “we have no record of his movements” in our databases, but did not deny it was true. As an Israeli citizen, Salah does not need to apply for a visa before arriving in the country. Also, said Kovats, his passport was issued in 2011, so contained none of the old arrival stamps.
BDS, refugee rights advocacy “unacceptable behavior”
Raza Husain QC presented a long and detailed argument for bail on behalf of Salah. As it unfolded throughout the morning, refuting the Home Office’s objections in some detail, it became clear that May’s “unacceptable behavior” rationale was indeed a reference to alleged anti-Semitism. Husain made detailed rebuttals of the specific accusations that formed part of the government’s objections to bail.
The British press had circulated accusations of an anti-Semitic “poem” they attributed to Salah. But under instruction from Salah, Husain emphasized he absolutely denies writing the poem and “finds it offensive” because of its anti-Semitic content.
Husain made a point-by-point rebuttal of several accusations of anti-Semitism on behalf of Salah. He categorically denied anti-Semitic statements attributed to him, and contested that several other statements the government had cited were actually examples of legitimate free speech.
The Home Office listed as another example of “unacceptable behavior” an interview with MEMO in which Salah advocated the Palestinian right of return and the boycott divestment and sanctions movement (“Raed Salah: Israel preparing to complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians,” MEMO interview, 14 June).
The government did not even attempt to contest Husain’s rebuttals. Kovats replied they were not currently in a position to do so. He even admitted there were “disputes of facts” on whether or not Salah had actually said the statements – statements their own objection to bail document seems to have attributed to him. In his summary, Stadlen said he had heard no evidence to support the alleged statements.
Israeli indictments made on same day as UK order
It was also revealed on Friday that on the very same day May now says she signed the exclusion order, 23 June, two indictments against Salah were issued in a Jerusalem court. These related to an allegation of incitement from 2007 and an allegation of “obstructing a Police Officer” from April 2011.
This coincidence, along with Israel-like rationales in the government’s case for objecting to the bail application, seem to back up Salah’s accusation that Israel bears responsibility for his arrest in the UK. For example, the government objection to bail also alleged that Salah has links with the Turkish charity IHH, which they said was alleged to have provided Hamas with aid – a claim rejected by IHH.
The government submissions also alleged Salah has links to Hamas. Husain, acting on instructions from Salah, absolutely denied this. The only evidence the government seemed to present on this point was a statement Hamas had issued on one of its website protesting his arrest.
As a well-known and important Palestinian leader of popular resistance against Israeli discrimination in Jerusalem, Salah’s arrest evoked condemnation from the the whole Palestinian political spectrum, including appointed, UK-recognized West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (“Salam Fayyad says Sheikh Raed’s arrest will harm the PA,” MEMO press release, 30 June).
The government’s case seemed almost farcical at times. At one point, an individual from the Home Office team sitting behind Kovats passed the barrister a note. Kovats then made the point that the continuation of multiple hearings for Salah’s case was attracting unwelcome attention. This seemed to be a reference to the media, but the judge was not impressed. “That’s not a very attractive argument, is it?” said Justice Stadlen, causing the court room to stifle a laugh.
Salah had said soon after his arrest that he “will not yield voluntarily to the deportation” and that his lawyers will fight the court case. He is now seems to be making good on that promise.
At one point, Justice Stadlen read out parts of a transcript in which immigration officials interviewed Salah, asking if he was willing to leave the country. “Where to?” he is said to have replied, “I plan to end this visit.” He was also recorded as laughing, and explaining: “I am happy to go back but I want to finish my visit.”
Friends of Al-Aqsa Chairperson Ismail Patel said in a press release bail was “a tremendous relief. It is worth remembering that this situation was wholly avoidable and the Home Secretary’s arrest of Sheikh Raed Salah and attempt to deport him were not backed up with any firm evidence.” Patel was one of two people putting up bail money totaling £30,000 ($48,000).
Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His website is www.winstanleys.org.