Defending "freedom"

IssueApril 2005
Comment by Emma Sangster

You could be forgiven for thinking that the new Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the result of an almost unprecedented to and fro between the Commons and Lords, is a much-watered down version of the Government's proposals for the replacement of the heavily criticised detention powers in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act.

But the parliamentary tussles perhaps tell us more about the shortcomings of most Westminster debates than about any actual gains made by defenders of civil liberties in this case.

Punishment without trial

What then was the result of 30 hours of debate and back-room negotiation?

British, as well as foreign,nationals now face the possibility of criminal penalties on the basis of suspicion before a crime has been committed, and per -mission was given for the UK to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights in order to allow house arrest.

Then there are the “non-derogating” control orders, which constitute a virtual state of imprisonment without trial. These are gross intrusions on normal life which, by restricting basic freedoms without the due process of law, are also a derogation from human rights law.

Two (minor) concessions were won from the government--a review of the Act after a year and the involvement of the courts. However, the process will only be one of judicial review and, as it was the judiciary that incarcerated the detainees at Belmarsh for over three and a half years, this does not seem much of a safeguard.

A control order can be issued if there are “reasonable grounds for suspecting” involvement in”terrorist-related activity”. The individual in question will never see the evidence against them and, with the definition of terrorism as broad as it is (including trying to “influence the government” and “advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”), it will be tempting for the government to use more control orders, especially if there is thought to be less hostility to them than imprisonment.

To shore up its argument, the government claimed that many tens of terrorists are living in Britain. Does this mean that their anti-terror policy has completely failed or that we will see a huge increase in arrests? It is more likely that this announcement is just the latest in a series of security alerts designed to increase the climate of fear.

The logic of control orders

This control order mentality is being increasingly legislated into being, most recently in “anti-social behaviour” and”right to protest” laws. People are criminalised, not for what they are alleged to be doing, but for breaching laws which are designed to limit that activity.

While those under the PT A control orders are not to be tried on their supposed “terrorist-related activity”, if they breach the unworkable control orders, they can be tried and imprisoned for this new offence. The growing use of control laws replaces rights with permissions and creates its own climate of fear, self-censorship and erasure of dissent.

Control or chaos?

The foreign detainees have been subject to a particularly chaotic and distressing “process” since their release in March. The general confusion about the workings of the control orders left the men in difficult circumstances.

The Home Office number which they are to call to arrange visits etc is only operating in office hours and is never answered anyway. Similarly, the tagging company, which needs to be contacted regularly, cannot deal with accented voices. Various detainees were left without food, money or access to family members and their children' s friends were unable to visit.

Their solicitors say that the men are isolated and worried that they will be arrested for breaking the unworkable orders. Their lawyers are preparing a legal challenge to them.

So much damage has been, and continues to be, done. Three of the detainees have suffered severe psychiatric problems, including an attempt at suicide, since their release. Just as the original PT A (1974) created the conditions for further harassment of Irish people, this new version, by creating special legislation on the back of 9/11, has subjected Muslim and other minority communities to similar treatment.

The British government should consider if it really wants to team up with authoritarian regimes around the world with similar laws or join those nations again where freedoms are not sacrificed to defend “freedom”.