British politicians frequently boast about how the foundations of ‘modern’ British law are rooted in the Magna Carta declaration of 1215. The logic being that the world did not know justice until King John put his seal on the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215 and so ‘modern’ British laws derived from the Magna Carta deliver justice even today and they remain a shining example to the rest of the world, especially the ‘backward’ African and Asian countries. The Magna Carta essentially states that no man shall be deprived of his liberty (i.e. imprisoned) or exiled from the land (i.e. extradited) without the lawful judgement of his peers (i.e. a fair public trial in which he is allowed to give his side of the story). For medieval 13th Century England that was still deep in savagery and barbarism it can be said that the Magna Carta was a big achievement.
Yet the truth is that some 600 years earlier an advanced civilisation in East Africa had been practically implementing the principles of justice found in the Magna Carta. But you wouldn’t know it because black African ‘savages’ teaching justice to ‘sophisticated’ white earls does not look too good in a school History textbook. The basic principle of justice that this 7th Century black African civilisation realised is that you cannot punish someone without giving them a fair trial in which you allow them to give their side of the story.
One of the earliest recorded extradition trials in international case law is Jafar bin Abi Talib and others vs Government of Quraish in the Royal Court of Justice of Abyssinia, 615 C.E. In the year 615 of Christian era, a group of Muslims fled torture and religious persecution in Makkah and migrated to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) to seek sanctuary in the kingdom of the righteous Christian King Negus. The 16 Muslims were led by Jafar bin Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him), the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). They had only just arrived in Abyssinia when the Government of Quraish sent an extradition request seeking the return of the group to Makkah. Amr bin Al-Aas QC (Quraish Counsel) with junior counsel Abdullah bin Abi Rabia were sent to Abyssinia to advocate for the men’s extradition.
The court convened one morning in the packed Royal Court of Justice of Abyssinia and presiding over the matter was the Honourable King Negus himself due to the seriousness of the matter. Amr bin Al-Aas QC, opening for the prosecution, laid out the basic facts of the case against the Muslim group. He stated that they were apostates who had abandoned the religion of their forefathers and so should be extradited back to Makkah.*He further added that since the Tribe of Quraish and the Kingdom of Abyssinia were major allies, under the terms of the Extradition Act 2003 Category 2 legislation no prime prima facie evidence had to be presented in order to seek the group’s extradition.*
King Negus adjourned the court for a few moments whilst he conferred with his bishops. The bishops told him,
“They speak the truth, O King. *The Quraish are our strong allies, they respect human rights and all international laws, treaties and conventions. Besides, extradition between strong allies is a major tool in the fight against terrorism and revolt.* Send them back to the Quraish so that they themselves might judge them.”
King Negus, who was renowned for his fairness and justice, grew angry at the suggestion of the bishops and said:
“No! By God, I will never surrender them to anyone until I myself question them about what they have been accused. *Our Kingdom is founded upon justice, fairness, equality and the rule of law. It is not founded about injustice, prejudice, bias and the law of the jungle like 2003 Britain. The Extradition Act 2003 Category 2 legislation may apply to a backward, uncivilised nation like 2003 Britain but here in 615 Abyssinia we do not extradite people without the presence of prima facie evidence and without allowing the accused to defend themselves in a fair trial here first. *If the allegations made by the Quraish are true then I will hand over these men to them. If they are not true then I shall never extradite them; I shall protect them for as long as they desire to remain under my protection.”
King Negus then invited Jafar bin Abi Talib (RA) to testify for the defence. Jafar addressed the court by recalling the depths of ignorance, immorality and barbarism that his people used to live in until Allah raised among them a man, Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him).
“This man,” Jafar described, “called us to worship Allah alone, forbade us the worship of idols, enjoined us to speak the truth, fulfil our trusts, respect the ties of kinship, render the rights of our women, neighbours, orphans and animals and forbade us from all evil. In return our people persecuted us, tortured us, drove us from our homes and seized our wealth to make us return to idol-worship. Therefore, as a last resort we have come to your land hoping that you will protect us from persecution…”
Following substantial cross-examination by King Negus that lasted into the next day, the King retired to consider his verdict. When the court reconvened the King delivered his verdict by first addressing the prosecution.
“Go! For, by God, I will never surrender them to you.”
He then turned to the group of Muslims and said
"Go, for you are safe and secure! Whosoever obstructs you will pay for it and whosoever opposes you will be punished. By god, I would rather sacrifice a mountain of gold than that any of you should come to any harm.”
Thus ended one of the earliest recorded extradition trials in history. The prosecution thought that it would be easy to win the case in the absence of any prima facie evidence, especially when they tried to play the ‘strong ally’ card. However, their efforts were frustrated when the judge, a righteous and fair judge who was also a good Christian, demanded to hear the other side of the story. Once he had heard the other side he concluded that the extradition request from the Quraish was ill-intentioned and politically motivated and so he threw out the request.
The 7th Century Abyssinians were not the first to understand that it is not possible for a judge to deliver justice between the accuser and the accused without hearing both sides of the story. The early scriptures are replete with examples of fair judges who allowed the accused to defend themselves before passing judgement. Abraham’s people asked him if he had indeed destroyed their idols before they threw him into the fire. Joseph’s master heard both the testimonies of Joseph and a servant witness before dismissing Zulaikha’s false allegation of attempted rape. David was harshly rebuked by Allah for passing judgment in the case of the two brothers (who owned 99 ewes and one ewe respectively) before hearing both sides of the story. The examples are numerous.
The Magna Carta was therefore, in 1215, nothing new and nor was it a big deal. Several millennia before the Magna Carta ancient civilisations knew full well that there can never be justice without allowing the accused to defend themselves. To punish, imprison or extradite someone without allowing them to defend themselves is not only unjust and abominable: it is unprecedented in the history of humankind. The British Government can punish, imprison, torture, and extradite people without trial if it so wants but whilst doing so it should keep its mouth firmly shut about democracy, justice, human rights and the rule of law. We should sort our own backyard out first before trying to ram ‘democracy’ down the throats of dead Iraqis. And perhaps we should also learn a few tips on justice from the 7th Century black Abyssinians whilst we are at it.
(Note: the words in asterisks * were not actually spoken by the individuals.)