Last week I attended an appeal hearing at the Immigration Tribunal in London. I have some experience of criminal courts and their strange inhabitants, but nothing had prepared me for this. A friend who was present described it as "Kafka's The Trial remade by David Lynch."
The interior design is somewhere between that of a magistrate's court and a dole office, the feeling of frazzled and routine desperation perhaps closer to the latter. After the usual token bag search, which I presume is done in order to make us believe that it is necessary, I take the lift together with two suited wonks whom I suspect are from the Home Office. They have the inane look about them of the yapping adolescent dogs of contemporary political power. Keen to take the opportunity to wind them up, I say loudly to my friend, "I hope they don't kill him. It's not very nice when they kill your friends." With hindsight I would like to have added, "especially on a nice day like this," which it was. I like to put things into perspective, particularly for the education of flabby, vacuous little murderers.
The second floor, where the tribunals are held, is full of stressed-out migrants and bustling lawyers from both sides. There are three queues in some incomprehensible system at the reception desk. I stand at the middle one, which seems to be labelled "Reception" and am told with an impatient sigh to move to the left one. I say I am here as a member of the public to watch the case of Mr _ _. The minor apparatchik rolls his eyes and says sarcastically, "Who's Mr _ _?" as if to point out how ridiculous it is for me to expect him to remember one foreign name from the long list of foreign names on whom the State would be making life or death judgements that day. I keep my temper and he tells me to look at the lists.
A sign next to the lists informs us loudly that "this service is provided free of charge at point of delivery." They're doing you a favour by allowing you the chance to prove, according to their rules, that you deserve to live. A very civilised, British twist on the totalitarian gesture of sending someone a bill for the bullets that killed a member of their family.
In the court room I greet the "appellant", a young man, my friend and tui na patient. He is almost speechless with anxiety after months in a situation equivalent to death row. He has been tortured in his country of origin, both by the police and by a powerful, murderous political faction, because of his work in an organisation campaigning against human rights abuses. If he is forced to return, he is almost certain to be arrested and tortured, and likely to be killed. After the trauma of violent persecution and a gruelling journey to Europe and the UK, he is now being subjected to a bureaucratic process that keeps him in a state of constant tension and fear.
The court is small with a low ceiling, like a small lecture room. There is a raised desk for the judge at the other end from where we sit on a row of mix-and-match chairs. The royal coat of arms behind the judge's desk, unlike the large full-colour version in criminal courts, is small and metallic grey - hideously appropriate for the cruel bludgeoning of humanity that takes place in these rooms.
We have to wait nearly an hour for the judge to arrive. By the time the clerk comes in, the translator has got bored and wandered off. The clerk goes off to find the translator, the translator comes back in, sees that the clerk isn't there, wanders out again, the clerk comes back in, leaves again and finally returns with the judge, who sends him out again to find the translator.
The judge is blind. Of course I know that this does not disqualify someone from being a legal expert, but there is something bitterly surreal about seeing the judge led into the court one step at a time by the clerk. More disturbingly, there seem to be long gaps in his mental processes during which he apparently forgets where he is and what is going on. He interrupts people in mid-sentence with tangential questions. He appears not to listen to what people say. He cuts off an important witness before the witness has made his point, and the witness has to press on with a crucial explanation of why people from a particular organisation are at risk of being killed. He has a tantrum after some trivial mathematical confusion.
I am shocked by the perfunctory nature of this hearing. My experience has been of criminal courts with their priority on oral testimony, which is gone through in great detail, often for days or weeks. This hearing, with hundreds of pages of evidence, and with the stakes infinitely higher than in any criminal case, lasts no more than half an hour.
The judge asks, "What do you fear if you return to [country of origin]?" My friend, the "appellant", replies, "Death." The judge asks, "Is there anything else?"
Later I will imagine a literary continuation of this exchange: "Death? Isn't that a little metaphysical? You'll have to come up with something a bit more substantial than that. I mean, death, it's rather mysterious, isn't it? Are you really able to give a definition of this 'death'?"
Then suddenly the hearing is over. The judge moves straight into the next case. The "appellant" may hear the decision in about three weeks, maybe longer. He says, "In [country of origin] they kill you with bullets. Here they kill you with the pen."