What is your most terrible nightmare? Is it worse than being trapped in a distant black hole, in an unknown country, unable to contact your family?
Is it more terrifying than torture, by day and by night, when your family does not even know whether you are dead or alive? Is your greatest fear, then, worse than Yunus Rahmatullah's reality?
The law does not concern itself with trifles, and if you ever find yourself held beyond the reach of basic decency, you will be glad that the arm of the law is long. On Wednesday the rule of law finally caught up with Rahmatullah, and shone a light into the cavern where he has been held for almost eight years. The court of appeal granted his application for habeas corpus, the historic writ that is sometimes said to stem from the Magna Carta itself, when King John was admonished that "no Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned … but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land."
Rahmatullah was originally placed in his particular black hole by the British authorities. He was detained in Iraq in early 2004. The British delivered him to the United States for illegal rendition to Bagram air force base in Afghanistan – a country he had never even visited. For five years, the British government pretended that he did not exist.
It is ironic that the government is currently chastising the media for tarring the good name of a celebrity, without offering him a fair right of reply. Such a slur might only appear in one paper, and the celebrity is free to hire Carter Ruck to cash in some damages. Most important, without disparaging Hugh Grant's complaints, even the News of the World never held a celebrity incommunicado in a gloomy cell for most of a decade.
Rupert Murdoch never abused his power as did the British ministers who, when Rahmatullah's plight finally came to light, loudly proclaimed that he was a member of a Sunni Muslim terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET). Of course, the ministers did this while cowering behind the barricades of parliamentary privilege; Rahmatullah was locked in his cell, without a right to reply at all. The lie was broadcast around the world, and used to justify his indefinite detention without trial.
When we finally tracked Rahmatullah's family down, offered to help him without payment, and brought his case to court, the British government retreated to a secondary line of defence: they did not pretend his detention was lawful but insisted, playing Pontius Pilate, that they could do nothing about it. Rahmatullah was now in American hands. His family should pay to take his case to Washington and ask their courts to set him free. Indeed, the UK was not willing even to ask President Obama to treat him fairly, they said, because such a demand would be "futile".
Lord Neuberger, writing for a unanimous court of appeal, poured polite scorn on this position. The UK was, we had argued, probably conspiring with the US to commit what is termed a "grave crime" under the fourth Geneva convention (which applies to civilian detainees). The court was generous, and chose to give the government the chance to avoid conviction, but pointed out that the US was legally bound to return Rahmatullah into British custody so that he could immediately be set free. To do otherwise, of course, would be to compound the crime.
Rahmatullah was cleared for release by the US military more than 18 months ago: he is concededly no threat to anyone. He only remains in his Bagram black hole because of internecine politics in the US. As a presidential election looms, neither party wants to seem soft on terror (or even, in this case, just soft on someone with a beard and a Muslim name). The judges gave the British government seven days to set Rahmatullah free, until 21 December.
The court described habeas corpus, a practice that has evolved over 800 years, as "the most efficient protection yet developed for … liberty." It is indeed more efficient than the British government. Yunus Rahmatullah has finally been permitted his right to reply.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 15/12/11