After a series of court cases and appeals, last December the Law Lords finally ruled that the internment powers were illegal, disproportionate and discriminatory. Law Lord Hoffman went further by declaring, ‘The real threat to the life of the nation… comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.’ This political and legal victory for justice resulted from a persistent three-year campaign.
Its authority under attack, the government responded by proposing even more wide-ranging powers. It intends to replace imprisonment with ‘control orders’, including house arrest, which would extend to British citizens and even to the families of ‘suspects’. Infringing a control order would lead to criminal charges and penalties.
In apartheid South Africa, similar ‘banning orders’ were imposed on political activists to prohibit any external contact beyond their families. Even in times of war, collective punishment is forbidden under the Geneva Conventions. Many MPs are now supporting such measures, which they opposed not long ago in South Africa. How did we get here?
The government is desperately attempting to maintain its façade of a ‘public emergency threatening the life of the nation’. This was the original pretext to justify powers for internment powers under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) 2001. The government cited the ’emergency’ to justify the UK opt-out from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees the right of habeas corpus.
A star chamber, the Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal (SIAC), colluded in internment by deferring to government claims. Secret evidence had been obtained by torturing people illegally held in detention centres abroad, sometimes in the presence of British agents. Meanwhile Special Branch officers terrorised friends and relatives of the internees here, warning them against any contact with the families. Internment was the most extreme of many powers which stigmatised entire Muslim and migrant communities as ‘terrorist suspects’.
From the start of internment, the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC) denounced the ‘fake emergency’. This has been systematically fabricated by MI5 spreading disinformation and character assassination, duly reported as fact in mass-media scares about ‘terrorist threats’. A broad network of human rights campaigners held numerous protests against the internment powers – initially at SIAC hearings, and later at Belmarsh and Woodhill Prisons, where the internees were being held. Placards read: ‘Belmarsh, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib: Axis of Evil’. Put in historical perspective, this campaign extends the long-standing struggle to gain and retain basic democratic rights, which have been periodically under threat.
Various ‘anti-terror’ powers, already being implemented, have moved this country towards a police state. The Terrorism Act 2000 more broadly redefined ‘terrorism’ to encompass a wide range of ordinary political activities; its definition blurs any distinction between organized violence against civilians and anti-government protest. On that basis, the Terrorism Act 2000 was used to ban many organisations and established a new crime of ‘association’ with them.
All these powers can be used arbitrarily. ‘Stop-and-search’ powers have targeted harass political activists, e.g. at Fairford Air Force base in early 2003 and the DSEI arms fair in September 2003. Freezing orders on bank accounts have been used to paralyse Muslim charities which send aid abroad.
‘Anti-terror’ laws do nothing to make our lives safer. Instead they feed on and perpetuate the politics of fear. They threaten us all. To protect our basic rights, we should demand the immediate release of anyone detained under ‘anti-terror’ powers.
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