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
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.