LONDON — At the end of last year, 69 men, it is thought, were being held in British prisons as terrorist suspects. Only 11 of these had been convicted of any offense. Twelve were being held in Belmarsh prison without trial (since then, one has been moved to Broadmoor, a high security mental hospital). This is the most serious abrogation of the basic civil liberty — that liberty can only be removed by the state after due process of law — since the height of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland over 20 years ago.
Recently Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a full apology to 11 people imprisoned in 1974 not because their trial was technically flawed, but because they were wholly innocent of the terrorist charges for which they were wrongly convicted.
It seems that civil liberties, so precious in the rhetoric of democracies, have little real value for the citizens of democracies; they are prepared to dispense with them if their lives and property are threatened. Anxious and angry critics of the “war against terror” have been crying out for the last few years that the very freedoms that this “war” is supposedly being conducted to protect are in fact being deftly removed by the U.S. and British governments in the name of protecting the citizens against terror.
It is one of the supreme ironies of neoliberals that their rhetoric condemns the protective “nanny state” and insists that all citizens be given the maximum individual liberty to do whatever they want; while they insist that in order to spread these principles throughout the world the first duty of the state is to protect its citizens. And that means curtailing our civil liberties.
Of course, the trick here is to say first that this curtailment — the right to free movement and communication, the right to trial by jury and due process, the right of habeas corpus — is an emergency, temporary measure; to say next that no right-thinking person will lose his liberties; and then to say, or rather intimate, that only foreigners will be affected.
The argument is specious: Once the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq changed, by sleight of tongue, from being wars against foreign enemies into being wars to “liberate” foreigners so that they too might enjoy the benefits of liberty, the very notion of liberty for all became a sham. Instead, it reverts to being the true neoliberal meaning: Liberty is for the rich and powerful few to do what they like where they like, when they like, how they like. As for everyone else, it is protection, not liberty, that matters, and anyone who is deemed a threat to those in the pale of protection has no claim to liberty. Opinion polls suggest that this approach has majority support.
But that support is from people who are outside the circuit of debate on civil liberties, the history of gaining them, the incalculable value they lay down for a democratic society. It is also support from people who are credulous about the idea of evil conspirators in our midst, and in particular it is support from those who are ready to see any “foreign group,” whether Irish Catholics or Mideast Muslims, as evil and violent men outside the pale of civilized society.
Inside the circuit of civil liberties debate, nearly every reputable body has condemned the use of special measures to detain suspected terrorists without trial. The measures were rushed through Parliament after 9/11 in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act.
By passing these and similar measures, the Labour government has “derogated” (withdrawn) from the European Convention on Human Rights. Its Article 5 specifies the most fundamental civil right — that no person should be detained without trial and due process of law.
Last summer the special commission set up to rule over the ATCSA judged that the detention of men in Belmarsh was lawful as an emergency measure against a threat to security. But last December, the Law Lords, Britain’s highest legal body, ruled it unlawful not because the detentions breached the right to a trial, but because they breached the law against discrimination — all those held in Belmarsh were foreign nationals, not British citizens.
Because of this ruling, the British government announced, in January, that all suspects, British citizens and foreign nationals, would be subject to house arrest if suspected of terrorism. The government said the suspects could not be put on trial because the evidence against them had been gathered by various secret methods such as telephone taps. Making these public in a trial, they claimed, would reveal to the terrorists how Britain’s secret intelligence worked. They must have anticipated the wail of derision that would follow.
Is this the same intelligence service that confidently informed its masters that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was sitting on a pile of weapons of mass destruction ready to be unleashed on the world on 45 minutes’ notice?
The opposition gathered weight and pace. Home Secretary Charles Clarke, once a leftwinger, was guilty of an “abuse of power,” said the very sedate Law Society. “There remains a public emergency threatening the life of the nation,” Clarke told an uncertain Parliament.
Last week those proposals staggered into legal form in a new bill presented to Parliament authorizing house arrest on the say-so of the home secretary. Opposition came from every party, most ominously from a large number of Labour members of Parliament.
At the last minute, Clarke promised amendments to the bill so that house arrest could be authorized only by a judge, not a state official or politician. The bill scraped through the House of Commons on Feb. 28 with a majority of just 14 (Labour has a majority of over 160). It next goes to the House of Lords where opposition is likely to be stronger.
Britain is the only country in the European Union to have abandoned its normal protection for civil liberties. For once, it is the body of normally despised politicians and lawyers who are doing their best to stop the destruction of basic liberties in the name of a war against terror.
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