British `Terrorism' bill mocks human rights
BY FERN LANE
Two weekends ago, a small group of political activists and human rights campaigners gathered in London to protest against a new piece of legislation which is making its way unhindered through the House of Lords, and which is very likely to affect the human and civil rights of almost anyone engaged in radical political activism. The Terrorism Bill, having already passed virtually unopposed through Parliament, is due to become British law early next year.
In the end, the protest was overtaken by the anti-capitalism demonstration, organised by Reclaim the Streets which took place on May Day, but the two events were in fact closely related, the reason being that this legislation is concerned with monitoring, controlling and ultimately subduing anti-government political activity on a greater scale than has ever occurred in Britain. And, judging from his sour reaction to what he referred to as a ``riot'', Tony Blair already has Reclaim the Streets firmly in his sights. It is only a matter of time before the Terrorism Bill is invoked against its activists, probably with the banning of future protests and possibly even with the proscription of the organisation itself.
Political activists are left in a position where the law is designed not to protect them from the excesses of a government hostile to their political objectives, but where they are obliged to helplessly rely on the government to choose not to invoke its own draconian and anti-democratic laws against them
The introduction of the bill, a permanent act which replaces both the `temporary' Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the Emergency Provisions Act (EPA), has been condemned since its inception by a raft of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Liberty, the Committee on the Administration of Justice, British Irish Rights Watch and Human Rights Watch. Their protestations, however, have fallen on deaf ears within government; indeed, the Home Office and Northern Ireland Office seem to be largely unaware of the objections which have been raised.
The PTA and EPA have, of course, been notorious for the powers they confer on the state and the police, particularly in regard to arrest and detention, and have fallen foul of numerous human rights treaties and convention. These powers, having now been tinkered with in order to allow for the incorporation into British Law of the European Convention on Human Rights, have nevertheless all been retained fundamentally intact within the bill. In addition, the legislation also includes clauses which limit freedom of association, assembly and expression. It also seeks to control the ability of activists to campaign against oppressive regimes abroad, and together with the new Criminal Justice Bill and Asylum Bill and the proposals for a new British government centre to intercept and monitor e-mail, represents a sustained attack by government on individual rights across the board. As it is, the PTA, currently in force, already allows for quite unbelievable invasions of privacy. One young Irishman travelling to Ireland recently, for example, was detained under the PTA at the airport, photographed and forced to provide details of his bank account. The police officers also went through his mobile telephone, making a note of all the numbers contained in the memory.
It now merely requires a compliant judge to authorise a seven-day detention order, where a person can be interrogated without legal representation, rather than a policeman as was previously the case. It is the Home Secretary, the architect of the legislation, who has claimed for himself the power to provide the ``checks and balances''.
It is crucial that all political activists, particularly republicans, understand in very precise terms the implications of this legislation and the danger to legitimate protest activity represented by it. At the recent Friends of Ireland conference, Paul May, a British human rights activist who has chaired campaigns for, amongst others, the Birmingham Six and Roisin McAliskey, outlined the potentially massively harmful effects of the bill, particularly in respect of the Six Counties, and expressed his anxiety over the relative lack of public protest:
``I very firmly believes that the application of repressive legislation over the last 30 years was one of the primary causes for recruiting participation in the Northern Ireland conflict,'' he said.
``Why is this [legislation] happening now and what can we do about it? Many are of the opinion, and I am one of them, that the first republican ceasefire produced shockwaves in the securocrat elements, both within the Home Office and the NIO. Panic set in and agitation started up within government for counter-terrorist legislation to be made permanent.
``I think it is to our collective shame that there is no massive campaign in opposition to this legislation - it is slipping through almost imperceptibly - and the tragedy is that government has not learned that repressive legislation does not work. It encourages the feeling that democratic activity is pointless or hopeless, and if one lesson should have been learned from the past 30 years in Ireland it should be that this type of legislation does not work. You do not deal with political protest by repressive legislation; you deal with it through political, democratic argument.
``The answer to the cessation has not, as any reasonable person would have expected, been for government to say, `well, thank God, we no longer need counter-terrorism legislation'. Absurdly, the answer has been to attempt to make the legislation permanent, and at the same time to extend the definition of terrorism so that individuals and groups involved in what hitherto would have been regarded as perfectly legitimate protest activity will in future be carrying out actions and activities which will be deemed `terrorist'.
``The definition of `terrorism' has been redrafted in this act to mean `the use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, of action which involves serious violence against any person or property, endangers the life of any person, or creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public'. There are a great many examples of activity which could be deemed `terrorist' under this - the digging up of genetically modified crops, the construction of tunnels by roads protestors, student occupations. `Serious violence', as it is termed, against property in future, if it is for a political, ideological or religious cause, will be deemed `terrorist' and attract draconian penalties.
``A person commits an offence if he or she invites support for a proscribed organisation. As the bill is currently prosecuted, these are all Irish organisations at this stage. But, even more perniciously, a person commits an offence if he or she addresses a meeting and the purpose of that address is to invite support for a proscribed organisation, or, if the individual knows that the meeting is to be addressed by a person who belongs or professes to belong to a proscribed organisation. It defines a meeting as `three or more people'.
``There is a new offence - new to Britain, not new to Northern Ireland - of directing terrorism. This a particularly frightening extension. Its history as an offence has been that RUC officers have tended to use the charges of directing terrorism in cases where they can't get any other evidence, or where they can't get any evidence at all.
``When Roisin McAliskey was in Castlereagh holding centre, it was put over and over and over again to her that if she signed a document admitting to directing acts of terrorism that the interrogation would end, that extradition charges would be dropped. It is always used by the RUC when no evidence of any act or action can be obtained. It is so easy to get someone in those oppressive circumstances to say `OK, I agree, I directed terrorism'. You don't have to say what terrorism, what act, what action, when - all the kind of things that defence lawyers need to go on when they are trying to mount a defence.''
The additional powers to be handed to the RUC, which has so grievously misused the EPA, have also been noted by Amnesty International, which, in a joint statement with Liberty, CAJ, British Irish Rights Watch and Human Rights Watch last September, expressed misgivings about a number of issues raised by the bill, pointedly referring to the wording of some of its provisions as ``a blank cheque for the RUC''.
Amnesty also disputes the British government's assertion that the bill complies with human rights covenants, saying that the ``provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the UK Human Rights Act would be violated by these proposed measures''.
Indeed, such is the degree of its opposition to the bill that Amnesty has now published a `List of Concerns' about the infringement of rights threatened by the bill, with a section on the Six Counties. The document says that:
``The powers to proscribe organisations not only make it a criminal offence to belong to `a terrorist organisation', but they also criminalise anyone speaking at a meeting where a member of a proscribed organisation is also speaking, even if the speech opposes activities of such organisation. The `meeting' could consist of three people `whether or not the public are admitted'. The penalty for the latter offence could be imprisonment for up to ten years.
``Amnesty International is concerned that these powers may infringe on the rights to freedom of association and expression and, if anyone were to be imprisoned for speaking at such a meeting in such circumstances, the organisation would consider him/her to be a prisoner of conscience.''
In an article in The Guardian on 14 December last year, John Wadham, the director of Liberty, made an impassioned case against the new legislation, saying:
``The anti-terrorism laws have led to some of the worst human rights abuses in this country over the past 25 years, contributed to miscarriages of justice and have led to the unnecessary detention of thousands of innocent people, most of them Irish. Only a tiny percentage of those detained have ever been charged and almost without exception they could have been detained under ordinary criminal laws.
``The Home Secretary believes that this bill complies with the European Convention on Human Rights. We would have to disagree. It risks infringing the rights to a fair trial, to freedom from unlawful detention, to freedom of speech and freedom of association. Yet the powers in the police and criminal evidence act are more than sufficient to deal with the criminal activities described under the bill. Draconian anti-terrorist laws should be abolished and not extended: such laws have a far greater impact on human rights than they ever will on crime.''
In a response to John Wadham's article, the Home Secretary Jack Straw adopted an air of mildly amused innocence. In an article in The Guardian on the same day, he sneered that the paper's readers ``could be forgiven for believing that the new terrorism bill marks the end of liberal democracy as we know it. As ever, however, the reality is very different.''
But, actually, it isn't. The legislation does represent a huge and tangible threat to democratic standards. Straw attempts to portray the bill as something of a tidying up exercise, merely correcting the anomaly of the temporary nature of the PTA and addressing the derogation by the UK from the ECHR. And, in a dismissive statement eerily reminiscent of the arguments offered by government after the introduction of the PTA (under which, infamously, Paul Hill of the Guildford Four was the first person to be arrested), the Home Secretary offers bland assurances on the possible misuse of the powers:
``The powers... will be subject to a series of checks and balances to ensure that they are used proportionately,'' he says. ``As well as the judicial oversight of extensions of detentions, proscribed organisations will have a right of appeal to an independent body and all future authorisations of the use of stop and search powers under the bill will have to be confirmed by me or another minister.''
So there you have it. It now merely requires a compliant judge to authorise a seven-day detention order, where a person can be interrogated without legal representation, rather than a policeman as was previously the case and it is the Home Secretary, the architect of the legislation, who has claimed for himself the power to provide the ``checks and balances''.
In essence, political activists are left in a position where the law is designed not to protect them from the excesses of a government hostile to their political objectives, but where they are obliged to helplessly rely on the government to choose not to invoke its own draconian and anti-democratic laws against them if they engage in political activity of which it disapproves or if they associate with individuals whom it considers to be enemies of the state. Britain's history of setting aside democratic norms and due process, particularly when it has involved Irish republicans, does not inspire trust that they will exercise that choice fairly or wisely.
The government also denies that the bill goes against what was promised by the Good Friday Agreement, which foresaw the repeal of emergency legislation, not its permanent inclusion in law. A Home Office spokeswoman told An Phoblacht that the legislation is not intended for use against ``innocent'' activists. However, the term ``innocent'' is, as we all know, a loaded one, and has historically been subjectively interpreted by the authorities to mean those who do not oppose the British state in Ireland. There is no such thing as an ``innocent'' republican under British law.
For its part, the NIO, in a statement to An Phoblacht, said that it ``rejects the argument that the new Terrorism Bill is against the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The bill is UK-wide with additional but temporary measures for Northern Ireland. This is a clear demonstration of our commitment to the removal of emergency powers in Northern Ireland. It is also important to remember that the Good Friday Agreement stated that the removal could only take place if the security situation allowed. Regrettably, the security situation does not allow us to remove the powers at this time.''
Once again, however, those with an interest in protecting human rights disagree: ``The Good Friday Agreement, in its commitment to human rights, recognised that past human rights abuses have been part of the problem and have exacerbated the conflict'' says Amnesty. ``Indeed, the Agreement looked to the early removal of emergency powers. The proposals represent the antithesis of this approach.''
A copy of the Terrorism Bill can be downloaded from Hansard's web site on