On fair trials

Should Dr Tariq Ramadan be afforded a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and equitable treatment before the law? Of course he should.

My question to the 100 intellectuals who have signed an open letter demanding due process and 150,000 others who have signed a petition calling for his immediate release, is whether in the context of the French judicial system, his detention is either unique or unusual. 

It is true that for those of us raised in the context of an adversarial legal system, where imprisonment without trial is firmly held to be contrary to the presumption of innocence, the detention of Dr Ramadan seems peculiar. Commentators, from journalist Peter Oborne to advocacy group Cage, are convinced that he is the victim of uniquely unfair treatment because he is Muslim. But in France, where nearly 20,000 people are currently held in pre-trial detention, making up nearly 30% of the country’s prison population, his detention is anything but abnormal.

If the Ramadan case succeeded in shining light on the prevalence of pre-trial detention in the country — about which Fair Trials International have long raised concerns — that would be an exceedingly good thing. Whereas we expect a suspect only to be remanded in custody if it is likely that they would interfere with the investigation or commit a serious crime while outside of custody, this is not the case in France where in a large number of cases, especially those involving foreign nationals, defendants are kept in custody until the start of their trial.

It is clear, however, that this case has had no such effect. Most people remain in the dark about the reality of France’s overwhelmed courts and the delays prevalent at each stage of their legal process, and therefore presume that Dr Ramadan’s file is a unique aberration. Commentators based in the United Kingdom or United States incorrectly assume that the French legal system is based on an adversarial legal system like their own, rather than an inquisitorial system in which an investigating judge questions witnesses and interrogates suspects.

Without a doubt, most people outside France would be shocked to learn that for thousands of people under investigation for all manner of alleged crimes, pre-trial detention is the norm and can last up to two years while an investigation runs its course, and in some extreme cases as long as four years and eight months. It is not without reason that France has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for the long delays in its criminal justice system, nor that many express concerns about the fairness of the system as a whole.

But ignorant of the widespread use of pre-trial detention in France, supporters of Dr Ramadan insist that his treatment is the ultimate embodiment of a prejudicial political environment, and nothing more. Peter Oborne, for example, likens Dr Ramadan to Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, who was given a prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister’s impoverished children during a period of economic depression. Of course Dr Ramadan is charged with crimes far more serious than those of Hugo’s fictional hero; on 2 February, he was charged with rape and rape of a vulnerable person, and remanded into custody where he has remained ever since.

This important point is continually glossed over by those campaigning for his immediate release pending trial, consistently offering only a brief paragraph or two to explain the accusations levelled against him, before making the case for his defence in detail. Indeed it has become par for the course for his supporters to quote verbatim the arguments and claims of the Free Tariq Ramadan campaign without any kind of independent investigation or free thought. Over recent weeks I have read numerous articles penned in his defence which have clearly been derived from the equivalent of Q Source; almost certainly Dr Alain Gabon’s lengthy and continuously updated article published by Milestones Journal and Middle East Eye, supplemented by the Free Tariq Ramadan petition hosted on change.org.

All such articles, while claiming to be objective and unbiased, clearly set out the arguments of the defence without as much as trying to probe or dig beneath the surface. Dr Ramadan’s lawyer is quoted as a definitive voice of truth, while the counter-points of the opposing legal teams are all but ignored. Even the breadth of French media, so demonised by the campaign, manages to report all sides of the case, whether picking holes in the stories of the accusers, airing the arguments of the accused’s lawyers or reporting every twist and turn in legal proceedings. To be clear, I am all in favour of the defence presenting their case, as they insist on Dr Ramadan’s innocence. I am just not so sure that this is the job of journalists and activists who claim to be objective.

In his article in The Spectator, Peter Oborne tells us that Dr Ramadan was incarcerated despite police ‘investigations then being only incipient’, but this was still three months after the initial allegations were made, when preliminary investigations had already generated several hundred pages in the case file. The French legal system states that people may be kept in custody to prevent them from tampering with evidence or interfering with witnesses; communicating with other suspects; committing another offence; or being in danger of others or themselves.

To the court’s concern that if released, Dr Ramadan might flee the country or coerce his accusers into dropping their charges, Peter Oborne confidently asserts:

But Ramadan hardly looked like doing either: he had flown to France to hand himself in and must know that intimidating his alleged victims would ruin his hopes in any trial.

Presumably because the fabled Q Source of the case does not mention them, Mr Oborne does not mention the names of two women who would likely cast doubt on his ability not to interfere with witnesses. One, operating under a pseudonym, has publicly shared photographs of letters and emails sent to her by fake lawyers claiming to represent Dr Ramadan over a period of four years, demanding that she cease speaking about her online correspondence with him. The other was paid €27,000 by Dr Ramadan in a confidentiality agreement ratified by a Belgium court, to stop her posting details of their five year-long relationship online. It would be unusual if the court did not take these factors into consideration when deciding whether to detain or bail the suspect.

Mr Oborne goes on to tell us that the police then threw Dr Ramadan into solitary confinement — ‘an indignity usually saved for arch criminals, not mild-mannered Oxford dons.’ Many reports dispute this, pointing out that he is in fact being detained in a special wing at Fleury-Mérogis prison, reserved for high profile individuals such as media, diplomatic and foreign personalities, likely to be harassed in the wider prison population. Unlike common prisoners, who would share a cell with other inmates, prisoners in this wing have their own cell, but are not prevented from associating with other detainees. So lone, solo confinement, certainly, but not solitary confinement as we usually understand it.

There is no doubt that secularist activists and right wing politicians — some extremely senior — have made political capital out of the case in pursuit of their own agendas. People with ulterior motives almost always do. Without a doubt, it is easy to point out apparent double standards and allegations of bias or prejudice on the part of the French judicial system. But we see this too in the campaign for Dr Ramadan’s release.

Note, for example, how numerous articles set out to discredit the plaintiffs, using arguments that could be applied to both parties. The first complainant has been thoroughly discredited, we are told, because she has allegedly changed her testimony concerning the place and time of the alleged assault, but the accused remains a reliable witness despite changing his testimony from having no sexual relations with anybody to having several extramarital relationships over several years. The second complainant is discredited because she has allegedly become an anti-Muslim activist in the years since she claims she was raped by a Muslim activist, but the accused is not discredited for now admitting having a virtual online relationship with her and having met her in the hotel lobby as described. The third complainant is discredited because she is a former prostitute, but the accused is not discredited on these grounds despite admitting a long-running, consensual relationship with her. It goes on like this.

Articles which begin meekly with upside-down footnotes — that if the accused is guilty he must face the full weight of the law — soon descend into unrestrained  deconstruction of the character of the complainants. Despite the half-hearted disclaimer at the head of the article, it is clear that there is only one real victim here. It is deemed sufficient to quote part of what the complainants say to make them say what we want them to say, or to quote them out of context. To be sure, I have little sympathy with the political views of the first complainant, as she parades around as an easily manipulated tool of the right wing political establishment. But that is immaterial.

For the supporters of Dr Ramadan, he is solely the victim of a right wing, anti-Muslim smear campaign, designed to bring down an unflinching critic of the French state. Peter Oborne tells us that 70% of the French prison population is Muslim, utilising an oft-quoted figure with no basis in fact — the real figure is estimated to be closer to 40% — and that the chief prosecutor in the case is a counter-terrorist expert, known by many according to Q Source Alain Gabon as the prosecutor of French jihadists. His job title is in fact simply Prosecutor of Paris, which gives him responsibility for a wide range of criminal cases. But the point is to make it undoubtedly clear that Dr Ramadan is a victim of virulent anti-Muslim sentiment in France, forgetting of course his hundreds of appearances on French television, in which he was treated as an equal and respected guest for over two decades.

There is no ignoring the climate of hostility towards Muslims in France, as in much of Europe and the wider world. There is no doubt that French Republican secularism institutionalises prejudice against Muslims and criminalises segments of the Muslim population on the basis of thought and dress. Such hostility only complicates cases such as this, fomenting suspicious and mistrust all round.

Nevertheless, a fair trial for Dr Ramadan means resisting the urge to instil in the minds of hundreds of thousands of people that he is simply the victim of a political conspiracy of his enemies. It means acknowledging that his detention is not, by any means, unique in the context of French law. It means recognising the contradictions and complexities in the complaints of all parties, and allowing justice to run its course, however long it takes.

Anyone who has been following the case objectively will eventually have to admit that, at root, the case is about alleged sexual violence against women. Certainly it has been complicated by an assortment of alliances, leading to suspicions about collusion and malevolent machinations, but in the end it will come down to the question of consent. It has already been established that behaviour similar to that described by three of the complainants has occurred, but purely, according to the defence, within the framework of mutual consent. Contrary to widespread claims, the third complainant’s case has not yet been dismissed, but will be examined later.

In the case of every plaintiff, the difficulty for the prosecution will be proving that the acts described as transpiring so long ago did indeed occur and, if they did, that they were non-consensual. If the majority of rape cases in France are any guide, they will have great difficulty in proving that claim, leading the court to find the accused not guilty in at least two of the cases under consideration.

Even if Dr Ramadan is exactly the kind of Muslim reformist that President Macron needs right now — apparently part of a generation of moderate Islamic scholars unafraid to challenge the traditionalists who apparently say that Muslims cannot be European — he now needs his supporters everywhere to be true to their word: to advocate for a fair trial, the presumption of innocence for all and equitable treatment before the law. So enough of this politicised campaigning, which has already decided who the real victims are, and who we may advocate for.

May justice be served equitably. May whoever has been wronged receive just restitution. May whoever has been slandered unjustly be compensated in full. May all parties receive fair treatment. Those four short sentences are an open letter I will gladly sign.

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