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Misuse of the courts

27 June 2014

IN HIS discussion of what constitutes British values last week, Canon Alan Billings listed, first, respect for the rule of law (Comment, 20 June). This, he suggested, was necessary for a cohesive society. This is an important truth, but requires two caveats. First, the law as constituted must deserve respect. Second, the aim must be to provide cohesion for the whole of society, not just one part of it. Three court judgments this week were instructive.

The cat-and-mouse treatment of Meriam Ibrahim, the Christian woman condemned to death for supposedly converting to Christianity, has shown the government of Sudan in a poor light. Her detention on Tuesday, after having been released from prison the day before, may well have been a bureaucratic blunder, but, without evidence to the contrary, it is easiest to imagine that the Government has decided to be obstructive. A similar treatment has been meted out in China to dissidents such as Ai Weiwei: wearing people down by means of nit-picking bureaucracy, described as having to "wear small shoes". As a consequence of Mrs Ibrahim's treatment, both the law and those responsible for its application are brought into disrepute. Islamic governments elsewhere have withstood pressure to introduce the type of sharia seen in Sudan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. In an online poll a few weeks ago, 95 per cent of a sample of Church Times readers thought that Islamic countries should repeal their apostasy laws.

In Egypt, Western governments want to help to stabilise the country through humanitarian and, less happily, military assistance. But one court judgment has significantly weakened this willingness to help: the imprisoning of three al-Jazeera journalists on Monday, guilty only of attempting to report events fairly during last year's crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, and of being employed by a channel based in Qatar, which is at odds with the current regime in Egypt.

Sudan and Egypt purportedly subscribe to the principle of an independent judiciary. But governments customarily step in when courts get it wrong, and the lack of any protest from either government suggests strongly that they approved, or even engineered, the verdicts. In both cases, the rights of minorities - a Christian in Sudan, supposed Islamist sympathisers in Egypt - have been sacrificed in order to shore up the government's relationship with the populace. Contrast this with the judgment on Wednesday by the Supreme Court in the matter of assisted suicide. The court was unmoved by public sentiment, which has of late swung in favour of people's right to kill themselves with the help of others. The judges were clear in their deference to Parliament when it comes to changing laws in response to public pressure. When the line between the judiciary and the executive is crossed, individuals' rights tend to suffer.

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