New authoritarian ways cross the line

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — At the recent Labour Party Conference, Prime Minister Tony Blair criticized the British criminal justice system. He said it needed toughening and called for “a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities” to deal with antisocial behavior and prevent terrorism.

Under measures to prevent terrorism, the government has already diluted the provisions of habeas corpus, the fundamental element of British Common Law that says no one shall be detained for more than 24 hours without the approval of a magistrate or a judge. The government now wants police to have the power to detain terrorist suspects without trial for up to three months.

Blair has attacked British judges for being too keen to enforce the European convention on human rights (which his government persuaded Parliament to adopt into English law), although he denies seeking to “abandon human rights.”

Blair’s remarks must be viewed against some disturbing reports of police behavior toward suspects. For instance, according to a report in The Times, an Algerian suspect, arrested in a dawn raid, had a gun put to his head and was led naked to a waiting police car. It turned out he was innocent.

Recently the BBC showed a massive raid in Birmingham of what was said to be a sex parlor that had confined East European girls and forced them to act as prostitutes. The media, tipped off in advance of the raid, were there in force to witness the police’s macho tactics.

The most disturbing incident recently was the shooting at a tube station of a young man a day after the July 7 London bombings on suspicion that he was another suicide bomber. It turned out that he was innocent. The evidence so far released suggests that the police acted, at best, too hastily under a “shoot to kill” policy adopted by the Metropolitan Police in London. The report into this killing will not apparently be released before yearend. Disquiet over the case will not be easily dispelled.

Blair and other members of his increasingly authoritarian government seem to believe that they are responding to popular pressure to implement stronger measures not only against criminal gangs and terrorists but also against “bogus” (asylum seekers).

There is undoubtedly widespread concern and anger about the growth of the “yob culture,” which has made some town centers no-go areas on Friday and Saturday evenings. Young men and women drink too much, start fights and terrorize ordinary citizens. Illogically, though, the government recently adopted measures that will prolong drinking hours.

Complaints are made about the way in which criminals manage to escape punishment after witnesses and jury members are intimidated. Another common complaint is that the rights of accused persons are given higher priority than those of victims.

To deal with cases where it is not easy to bring charges and get convictions, local councils have been given the power to demand antisocial behavior orders, which require a lesser degree of proof.

Modification of the rules of evidence in criminal cases may be needed and police perhaps should have additional powers, but changes in the criminal law should be made only after careful consideration by parliamentarians and lawyers.

Police need to be deterred from behaving in macho ways. Most people prefer a more visible police presence and assurance that crimes will be better investigated and more criminals apprehended. Most police do behave sensibly and with restraint, but they should not be given the right to decide guilt or innocence. That remains a matter for the courts.

Unfortunately the government has displayed its dislike for criticism and dissent. A disgraceful incident at the Labour Party Conference manifested the lengths to which the party is prepared to go to suppress dissent. When a Labour member shouted “nonsense!” during a speech by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on the government’s Iraq policy, he was immediately pounced on by a tough steward and manhandled out of the conference hall. Police then refused him re-entry and temporarily detained him under the terrorism prevention act.

A Labour Party member who protested the rough treatment was also expelled from the hall.

The man who had shouted “nonsense” turned out to be an 82-year-old pensioner who had been a party member for decades and was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. As soon as the leaders on the platform realized the potential public relations disaster, an apology was made. He was ushered back into the conference hall the next day. Although the blame was placed on the steward-bouncer, none of the conference observers doubted that the steward was acting under the general guidance of party leaders.

Police were excused for detaining the 82-year-old on the grounds that every precaution must be taken these days to prevent a terrorist incident.

An article ran in the London Times during the conference with the headline “The dawning of jackboot justice.” One commentator referred to Blair’s fascist tendencies. I prefer to call them “authoritarian.” Similar tendencies can be seen in the attitudes and behavior of U.S. President George W. Bush and his rightwing Republicans over the reported abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Neither Britain nor the United States is anywhere near becoming a police state, but we need to beware of the authoritarian tendencies of our leaders and insist on tolerance, fairness and justice for all.