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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 July, 2005, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
The last days of 'Londonistan'
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

File photograph of Saudi dissident Muhammad al-Massari
Massari's case highlights difficulties the UK government faces
The London bombings have spurred the British government into proposing a series of new laws designed to put an end to the reputation of the capital as "Londonistan", a centre for militant Islam.

It wants to create offences such as "indirect incitement to terrorism", "acts preparatory to terrorism" and using the internet for terrorist recruitment and training.

It also wants to make it easier to deport foreign nationals who openly preach jihad and violence.

However, one attempted deportation shows how human rights legislation and its interpretation by the judiciary can prevent the executive in a Western democracy from simply exercising its will.

At a time when al-Qaeda and its associates are showing a resilience and ability to strike at widespread targets in London and Egypt - let alone Iraq - the government feels such legal protections must be looked at again.

The Massari case

The case in point is that of Muhammad al-Massari, an exile from Saudi Arabia, who runs a website that shows videos of suicide bomb attacks in Iraq, including one in which three British soldiers were killed.

An extended interview with Mr Massari was shown in a BBC television documentary about how the internet is an integral part of the far-flung al-Qaeda network, of which the Iraqi insurgents led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are part.

[Mr al-Massari] opposed the Saudi royal family from an Islamist point of view... The royal family was not greatly amused
British official

In the 1990s, Mr Massari ran a group in London called the Committee for the Defence of Legal Rights. At that time, he specialised in sending faxes into Saudi Arabia to promote his cause.

According to a British official who has tracked the case, the Saudi government told the British authorities at the time that he was more Islamic militant than human rights activist.

"He opposed the Saudi royal family from an Islamist point of view. He thought, and probably still does, that it was not Islamic enough, that it was corrupt and decadent," the official said.

"The royal family was not greatly amused."

Attempt to deport

During the Conservative government of John Major, a high-level assurance was given to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah that Britain would send Mr al-Massari back.

That is when the legal problems began.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair says tackling the ideology behind the attacks is key

The case was handed to an unusually senior British official, a sign of how important it was deemed.

For the next 18 months, this official spoke to almost every lawyer in the government but was blocked at every turn.

The issue was that of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which says in Article 32: "The Contracting States shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order."

Government lawyers said that British national security was not sufficiently engaged, even though the then-Home Secretary Michael Howard argued that British interests in the Gulf were at risk from Mr Massari's activities.

The Dominica solution

Eventually, another route was explored.

"We looked at whether another country might take him," said the British official. "We narrowed it down to about 10. They all said that they would like to help but always added that their relations with Saudi Arabia might be jeopardised. Finally it came down to one - Dominica."

"Other countries have managed perfectly well, consistent with human rights, to expel people who are inciting in other countries
Tony Blair

Dominica, a former British colony, is a volcanic dot in the Caribbean, one of the lushest of the West Indian islands and about as far away from the Middle East as you can get.

It had been run for 15 years by a tough prime minister named Eugenia Charles, an admirer of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Dominica agreed to take the Saudi exile.

"Massari appealed and the court upheld his appeal," said the official.

" It held that although Dominica had signed the 1951 Convention, this was not incorporated into its domestic law, so there was a chance he would be sent on somewhere else. We could not get rid of him."

The promise to the Crown Prince could not be fulfilled. The Saudis were not pleased.

European Convention

Mr Massari was eventually allowed to stay in Britain and is now protected even more because of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act of 1998.

It prevents anyone from being deported if there is a risk of them being tortured, which is against Article 3 of the Convention.

"The Saudis have offered assurances that he would not be tortured," said the British official, "but the lawyers said this was not enough."

Whether the government tries to deport Muhammad al-Massari again, especially after the considerable satisfaction he appeared to show in displaying his video of the deaths of the three British soldiers, remains to be seen.

Government frustration

The government's frustration showed when Prime Minister Tony Blair said at a news conference on Tuesday that judges had been "blocking" deportations.

"Other countries have managed perfectly well, consistent with human rights, to expel people who are inciting in other countries.

We should withdraw from the 1951 Convention and have a national convention for asylum which would cut out the abuse
Sir Andrew Green
Migration Watch UK

"We have tried to get rid of them and been blocked. I think there has been too great a caution in saying: 'Sorry this is unacceptable.'"

Some favour more radical solutions than hoping for a more compliant judiciary.

Sir Andrew Green, a former senior British diplomat who now runs campaign group Migration Watch UK, says there needs to be "fundamental review of the whole system".

"We should withdraw from the 1951 Convention and have a national convention for asylum which would cut out the abuse. We should also withdraw from Article 3 of the Human Rights Convention and re-enter with a new provision," he said.

But a warning against such an approach has come from none other than Mr Blair's wife, Cherie Booth, a lawyer.

She told a conference in Malaysia that Britain should not take measures that would "cheapen our right to call ourselves a civilised country".

European experience

Other European countries are facing the same dilemma.

France's Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has said recently that he will deport more Muslim clerics preaching violence.

In October last year, after a case which went right up to the highest administrative body, the Council of State, France sent an imam back to Algeria.

Germany has sometimes also been accused of harbouring militant Islamist preachers and in January this year it, too, acquired new powers of deportation.

The Social Democratic Interior Minister Otto Schily called the new law a "historic breakthrough" and a "blessing for Germany".

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