The Politics of Terror: The Threat to Freedom

Issue section: 

Our civil liberties are being eroded in the name of anti-terrorism.

Bush and Blair say the war on terror is a war to defend freedom. Some freedom. Over 700 people have been arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000, and many more have been harassed and threatened with detention. Only about 70 of them have been charged - mostly with immigration offences. By December 2003 just seven had been convicted. None of these were found guilty of planning or carrying out specific 'acts of terror'. Almost all of the people arrested and harassed have been Muslims, but only two of the people convicted were Muslims.

Internment has been reintroduced. David Blunkett denies it is internment, as only non-British citizens are held without trial. So that's okay then. According to civil rights group Liberty, 14 people have been detained under this provision as 'risks to national security'. They are barred from seeing the evidence against them, as are their solicitors. They can be appointed a state-approved advocate, but once they have seen the evidence against the defendant they are forbidden to discuss it with anyone - including the defendant!

Cities could be sealed off

Now Labour is proposing what the Guardian has described as 'potentially the greatest threat to civil liberty that any parliament is ever likely to consider'. Labour's new Civil Contingencies Bill is an extension of the 1920 Emergency Powers Act, which has only ever been used against trade unions and striking workers. Initially the new bill was to extend the definition of emergency to include a collapse of the stockmarket. But even after initial changes to the draft Tony Bunyan, the editor of Statewatch, says, 'The powers available to the government and state agencies would be truly draconian. Cities could be sealed off, travel bans introduced, all phones cut off, and websites shut down. Demonstrations could be banned and the news media be made subject to censorship. New offences against the state could be "created" by government decree. There would be extensive powers to prevent "assemblies" (protests), travel and "other specified activities" (undefined).'

All this brings to mind one of the earliest parliamentary bills passed to maintain the sectarian state in Northern Ireland. The Special Powers Act included a clause which was the envy of every dictatorship in the world. It stated, 'If any person does any act of such a nature as to be calculated to be prejudicial to the preservation of the peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland and not specifically provided for in the regulations, he shall be deemed guilty of an offence against the regulations.'

New Labour has overseen a staggering increase in state power and infringement of civil liberties, which dates back to before 11 September 2001: attempts to limit access to jury trials; the right to silence now denied even to children; compulsory ID cards still on the horizon (at one time Blunkett wanted criminal records and an individual's religion encrypted in the card, which exposes that their purpose is far from the 'citizen's card' that commentators like David Aaronovitch have applauded).

The 'war on terror' has been the perfect excuse to drive through even more controversial legislation. For when you are at 'war' normal conditions don't apply, and the government can use the public's genuine concern at the possibility of attack by claiming that all it needs is yet another tough law to keep the terrorists at bay. If the public don't seem worried enough to swallow the changes then tanks are sent to the airports, the media are fed stories to whip up fear and pundits talk about the inevitability of an attack.

This was the situation when the first Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was introduced in 1974 by the then Labour government. The trigger was the Birmingham pub bombings. It was meant to be a 'strictly temporary measure' in extraordinary circumstances. It resulted in a massive campaign of harassment of Irish people by police forces all over Britain.

It has been estimated that more than 7,000 people were detained under the PTA, and tens of thousands were stopped, searched and questioned every year until the ceasefire and peace process. Yet fewer than 5 percent were ever charged with a 'terrorist' offence - some of these simply for wearing a badge or 'withholding information'. A far smaller proportion were ever convicted. Unsurprisingly many of the most blatant miscarriages of justice, including the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, date from this period.

The PTA was never repealed. Year after year it was renewed, and under Labour it has been replaced with even more draconian anti-terror laws. For in 1998 the government looked at the act and decided that its definition of 'terrorism' was too narrow, defining terrorism as 'the use of violence for political ends'. It wanted to include a host of other activities, such as animal rights protests, computer hacking and contamination of water supplies. So in the Terrorism Act 2000 a terrorist act became any act or threat of action which involves serious violence 'designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public' and to further the advancement of a 'political or religious cause'.

Then two months after 11 September the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) 2001 was rushed through. Once again, the smokescreen of a shocking incident was used to push through hugely contentious legislation. This was the act that effectively brought back internment. Each time the echoes of Northern Ireland are clear. One lawyer who has been central to challenging the consequences of the state powers in Northern Ireland is Gareth Pierce, who said of the introduction of internment there, 'The so called intelligence on which it was based was entirely erroneous, and the burning injustice had the effect of consolidating support for armed struggle for more than three decades against those who had imposed it.'

Vague claims

In this case the government could not rely on vague claims of an abstract war on terror. Because the European Convention on Human Rights explicitly forbids member states from detaining people without trial, Blunkett had to claim that the threat posed to Britain by the Al Qaida network legally amounted to 'a public emergency' which meant Britain had to withdraw from the treaty. When pressed that such action was illegal except in very specific circumstances, he replied that this was a 'technicality'.

Today 14 people (all Muslim) are still held in Britain's own Guantanamo Bay in Belmarsh prison. Some have been there for over two years and currently have no prospect of a trial or being released. They have the right to appeal only to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac). They or their lawyers can never see the evidence against them.

When the home secretary is putting his case to Siac to continue to intern people - potentially indefinitely - the burden of proof he has to meet falls well short of 'beyond reasonable doubt'. Amnesty has pointed out that anyone involved in a civil claim to recover damages (for example as a result of a car accident) must prove their case to a standard higher than that required under the ATCSA.

The Siac has defended this, saying, 'The standard of proof is below a balance of probabilities [ie the standard in civil cases] because of the nature of the risk facing the United Kingdom, and the nature of the evidence which inevitably would be used to detain these appellants.'

The climate of repression and legal harassment, particularly of Muslims, is now all-pervading. Every day individuals are stopped and searched. In a written answer to a parliamentary question Blunkett claimed the figures for the number of people stopped and searched were as follows:

  • 2001-02
    Total searches - 10,200; Resultant arrests - 189
  • 2002-03
    Total searches - 32,100; Resultant arrests - 380

Yet a study by Statewatch shows that the numbers of stop and searches is actually a staggering 71,100. The police are recording the stop and searches under the Criminal Justice Act as opposed to the Terrorism Act, and so disguising the real increase in these figures.

Blunkett can hardly hide his glee when individuals are detained under his ever-growing armoury of legislation. When a 24 year old man in Gloucester was arrested in November last year Blunkett said, 'It is the belief of the security and Special Branch services that this man has connections with the network of Al Qaida groups.' Just like the police who arrested the Guildford Four, who immediately said they were confident they had the bombers, Blunkett threw away any pretence that anyone was innocent until proved guilty. He has been criticised by the leader of the Bar Council and was threatened with an inquiry, but of course the damage has been done.

Blair and Blunkett are even going too far for some sections of the ruling class, who can see the contradiction of a war to defend freedom being used increasingly to limit freedom in Britain. So three appeal court judges last month ruled the 16-month detention of a Libyan man in Belmarsh unlawful, and condemned Blunkett's 'inappropriate certification' of him as an international terrorist. And the Financial Times used its editorial two days after the Madrid bombing to express the anxiety that 'Britain argues necessity, and that ends justify the means. But this is the logic of the terrorists themselves, and neither Britain nor Europe can afford to share it.'

But this has always been the logic of the use of the law by the state. It has never been more clear that the state is not designed to improve the welfare of ordinary citizens but is a weapon used in the interest of the ruling class. For no amount of ID cards, internment and arbitrary arrests is really going to make us safer from suicide bombers. Blair's role in the 'war on terror' has ensured that Britain is a prime target. Instead the government has used the opportunity to vastly increase its power to wage war on us, the mass of ordinary people in Britain. Blair fears the mass movement of anger that took to the streets and polling stations in Spain last month, and believes he can use fear of terrorism to distract us from his actions. We need to ensure that he does not succeed.