The European Court of Human Rights has ordered Britain not to deport two Somalis who have been convicted of serious crimes, saying they could face torture or other "inhuman" treatment if they are forced to return to their home country. The ruling reflects a long-held legal principle, and also some tensions inherent in today's mix of failed states and relatively free movement of people.
The court's ruling says Britain would be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights if it sent the two men back to Somalia.
The men, Abdisamad Adow Sufi and Abdiaziz Ibrahim Elmi, have been convicted of burglary, drug dealing and threatening to kill people. British authorities sought to deport them. But the Strasbourg-based court said while their actions were "undesirable," they would be at risk of mistreatment in Somalia and therefore they cannot be forced to go there. It ordered the British government to pay the men's legal fees, totaling more than $30,000.
The court analyzed each man's personal and family situation before making its decision, suggesting it might approve the forced return of some people if they had the means to keep themselves safe. British media say the ruling could affect more than 200 other Somali convicts held in the country.
The director of the European Institute at University College London, Professor Richard Bellamy, says when there is a risk of mistreatment, the cost to the British government of holding the men and the danger they might pose if they are released from prison someday are not relevant.
"It's not a question of balancing," said Bellamy. "Their view is simply that you cannot risk putting an individual in a circumstance where they might be tortured or murdered. Britain has an obligation to sentence them and for them to serve their sentence and to rehabilitate them."
Bellamy says under the European Convention on Human Rights, a person's protection from torture is absolute. Bellamy says the Convention is designed, in part, to provide incentive to European countries to take action to help improve the human rights situation in other parts of the world so that foreign criminals can be sent home.
At London's King's College, international law and human rights expert Professor Satvinder Juss agrees.
"The number of failed and failing states are on the increase," noted Juss. "And when you've got a situation where countries are in deep strife and civil war situations and lawlessness, unless those situations are addressed at a global level, we will end up importing some of the problems from there."
Professor Juss says the European Convention on Human Rights forces the continent's countries to accept some risk in return for upholding their principles.
"This does expose free countries, countries that are governed by the rule of law, to dangers on their own territory," added Juss. "We are held up, as law-respecting societies, to a higher standard. I would, personally, not have it any other way. But I think that is a risk. Many of our law-abiding citizens are thereby placed at risk."
The professors say once the two Somali men complete their sentences in Britain, they will probably have to be set free. They say the courts will not allow law enforcement authorities to hold the men beyond the length of their criminal sentences, even if they are in the country illegally and even if they pose a risk of future criminal behavior.