Muslims suspected of having links with terrorism are often victims of negative and erroneous media portrayals. They often end up being found guilty by the general public even before standing for trial. This article seeks to provide a practical guidance to overcome this issue through a recent example.
In January 2012, the European Court of Human Rights’ decision, that deporting Muslim cleric Abu Qatada to Jordan would violate his right to fair trial created an unprecedented controversy in the United Kingdom. Several outraged politicians and commentators came out attempting to show that Abu Qatada is or was a very senior Al Qaeda figure in Europe. Moazzam Begg has already described and clarified some of the unsubstantiated allegations laid against Abu Qatada. Another accusation levelled against Abu Qatada, widely spread through the media, was that he had influenced Djamel Beghal, a French-Algerian jailed in France, in plotting to blow up the US embassy in Paris.
What was presented as an established fact was actually far from reality. If it is true that Djamel Beghal was sentenced to ten years of prison in France in 2005, the decision of the French Court of appeal explicitly states that there was no evidence whatsoever to suggest that any plan to bomb the US embassy in Paris ever existed:
“As for Djamel Beghal, the Court observes that the evidence of a project to bomb American interests in Paris (embassy or cultural centre) is not reported by the procedure, except through a statement made by Djamel Beghal before Emirati investigators but obtained under conditions incompatible with the right to defence and which can therefore not be used against him. Nevertheless, it appears from the investigation and the instruction that he is implicated in the most radical Islamist sphere, the one supported by Al Qaeda and which aims have been established to be the destabilisation of western regimes that support the US and Israel.”
Moreover, commenting on this case, Alain Chouet, former head of the French intelligence, declared that after a rigorous investigation, his services had to conclude that Beghal did not have the human, technical or financial resources to commit such an attack.
The reality is that the only element pointing towards a plot to blow up the Parisian US embassy was a confession made by Beghal while he was illegally and secretly detained in the UAE. In accordance with International law, the court of Appeal had to dismiss the statements simply because the Beghal was subjected to torture and forced into making false confessions. During a medical examination carried when he returned to France, a doctor found evidence of mistreatment as well as “post-traumatic effect[s] of the alleged events”.
As revealed by Cageprisoners in a report, Beghal alleges that the methods used against him included extremely grave sexual assaults, beatings on the sole of his feet, sound torture, sleep, food and light deprivation, exposure to extreme temperature, stress positions, nail ripping, water torture, injection of unknown chemicals and mock executions.
Finally, a diplomatic cable sent from the US embassy in Paris released by Wikileaks revealed that a French judge declared that the evidence against Beghal would normally not have been sufficient to secure a conviction but the counter-terrorism services were successful because of their reputation.
All the points mentioned above are from open sources easily accessible on the internet. Any interested person could have identified them.
The Beghal/Abu Qatada case is not isolated and the press has repeatedly peddled incomplete, misleading or incorrect information on terrorism-related cases with devastating consequences for the accused who are deemed guilty even before they appear in front of a court. But how does one challenge this? Aren’t the media the ‘fourth estate’? Aren’t newspapers, TV and radio channels owned by multi-billionaires media conglomerates? They may well be but a grain of sand can cause the most sophisticated machine to grind to a halt. Any individual can send a polite email to the editor of any newspaper in order to point out an inaccuracy or a mistake in a media report. It’s possible that one might even be the recipient of gratitude as a result of pointing out the error. If the discussion is not fruitful however, mechanisms such as those on offer by the Press Complaint Commission purportedly exist in order to resolve the dispute and reach common ground.
Indeed this very simple process led the Daily Mail to add a few lines at the end of two articles (here and here) highlighting the points mentioned above as well as the Press Complaint Commission to issue a statement on its website. No matter how small this result might be, it is only when a number of conscious people take those little steps to achieve these “little results” that a narrative closer to the truth will be brought about in this so-called War on Terror.
1. See also: Fahad Ansari’s letter on the Abu Qatada case in The Times.