- By Victoria Brittain
After months of dignified silence while their father has been repeatedly publicly vilified in an unprecedented high-level political and media campaign, the children of Mohammed Othman (Abu Qatada) have now written an open letter on Twitter refuting some of the press misinformation about them, and detailing what they describe as escalating oppressive practices of the British government. They reveal too some of the extreme difficulties of their young lives in recent weeks and months, and the fact that threatening messages have become something they have learned to live with.
“We are just like a punching bag for anyone,” the oldest son, Qatada, said today, describing why the children of this very private family felt they could no longer keep silent.
The letter highlights the systematic pressure of the media outside their previous house, once their father was allowed out on bail, and how it has drawn in demonstrations. “The press would stand outside the house and incite passers-by to harass us and sign petitions to get us evicted. They would do the same thing with our neighbours. This incitement encouraged racist pressure groups to hold demonstrations outside the house on a weekly basis between four in the afternoon and eleven in the evening. These demonstrators would scream and curse at us and at Islam.”
The letter describes how in their previous home the landlord himself was subjected to the pressure of enormous media attention. The family had to leave. Far from them asking the government to move them to a bigger house, as has been constantly reported, the government insisted their father, freed on a court order, be in a house the government found. By now, in fact, it was impossible to find a landlord ready to let to them, given the constant repetition by government figures at all levels about how dangerous and undesirable their father is. The media campaign against him has become became part of the political project of the government to defy the court ruling and force him to return to Jordan to face a trial where all the evidence against him was obtained by torture.
“Our father was the only one jailed; however, currently our whole family has become restricted through the mutually agreed practices of the British press and Home Office,” they write. “It is as though we have all now been imprisoned.”
Despite Home Office assurances that they would be moved discretely to new premises which the media would not be able to besiege, the journalists and cameras were immediately back, although by then it must have been clear that Mr Othman would not come out of this house, as he never did from the previous one. The demonstrators with their insulting placards and slogans were not far behind the media. And again a new different landlord – who had no idea the house was let to a public figure – has come under the pressure of a media spotlight. “What happened in the old house has now happened here in regard to the press inciting the neighbours, passers-by and racist pressure groups. The way in which the Home Office expelled us amounted to an explicit invitation to the press to learn where we are and allow them to continue their harassment of us.”
That was not the only problem with the new accommodation provided, which they found to be “small and filthy” when they arrived. “They refused to tell us where the house would be. We had requested somewhere close to our Islamic schools, but we were told nothing about the house until we were taken there. Only then did we discover that it was double the distance to the schools and that it was too small for the number of us that there are…. due to its distance, some of us are still unable to attend school.”
The letter spells out how the police in front of the house checks identities of the lawyers – who are the only people apart from the family to be allowed in – and even of the children themselves. The isolation of the family is now extreme. As is usual in deportation or control order cases there is no internet or mobile phone allowed in the house, but here there is also no landline for friends to call, and they have been told they will have to wait until some time in January. The only way the children can speak to friends, or anyone, is to leave the house and speak on a mobile.
The letter says they have asked to be allowed to move to another house, where they can get to their schools. But the Home Office insists the current house is suitable. And the power of media and government character assassination of a man who has never been accused of any crime in this country, and whose family’s reputation in schools, colleges, and communities where they are known, is exemplary, has meant that there is no one who has come forward over the months of their housing crisis to offer to rent them a house.
The children’s letter has a note of exasperation that, “these idiotic demonstrators and journalists do not realise ….we have asked the British government to allow us to leave the UK for a third country; somewhere other than Jordan or the UK. However they have refused and said they would fight to prevent us from leaving Britain to anywhere except to a prison in Jordan.Let no one be under the impression that we want to stay here after having suffered so much. We will persistently continue to try to leave this country legally for one that will bring us security in our religion.”
There is a note of youthful optimism in their closing words that, following what they call the blessed revolutions in Islamic states, God’s mercy will bring them this.
What makes the malevolence of the situation worse is that they have mounted locks on the entrances to the house which can only be opened by them, and, “…it is as though we have all now been imprisoned.”
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Victoria Brittain is a patron of CagePrisoners and a well known journalist and writer. She has spent much of her working life in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, writing for The Guardian and various French magazines. She has been a consultant to the UN on The Impact of Conflict on Women, also the subject of a research paper for the London School of Economics. She was co-author of Moazzam Begg’s book, Enemy Combatant. She is on the Council of the Institute of Race Relations, the Board of Widows Rights International, and is a Patron of Palestine Solidarity.
Her latest book “Shadow Lives: The Impact of the War on Terror on Women” will be released soon.