Civil Liberties: The Threat of Britain's Patriot Act

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As David Blunkett attempts to create a climate of fear, Mubin Haq looks at the real impact of the proposed Civil Contingencies Bill.

The destruction of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 gave the pretext for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and allowed governments worldwide to stamp down on civil liberties and human rights. This was done in the name of security and tackling terrorism. The genuine fears of the population were played upon and the threat exaggerated to apocalyptic scenarios.

Many will be aware of the high profile attack on civil liberties in Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib. Here in Britain, Blair and Blunkett have also been busy. New legislation has been introduced (the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001) which hands far-reaching powers over to the state. The proposed Civil Contingencies Bill goes even further, allowing the government to declare a state of emergency in 'any event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or the security of the UK'.

Media frenzy

The definition is vague and potentially covers a whole range of incidents. It will give the government sweeping powers if it calls an emergency. As Tony Bunyan, editor of Statewatch, comments, '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. This is Britain's Patriot Act - at a stroke democracy could be replaced by totalitarianism.'

Under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 the police can now stop and search without any suspicion in an 'authorised' area. All of London has been placed under this category. Between 2001/02 and 2002/03 there was a 151 percent increase in the use of this draconian power. However, in 2001/02 under 3 percent of those stopped were arrested and fewer than 0.3 percent were arrested in connection with terrorism.

Asians have been particularly targeted and the numbers being stopped and searched have increased by 300 percent since the Terrorism Act came into force. Two thirds of those arrested have been Muslim. Yet the majority of those convicted under anti-terrorist laws over the last three years are non-Muslim. Only three of the 15 people convicted under this legislation are known to be Muslim, and two of those have been allowed to appeal.

That only a minuscule fraction of individuals have been convicted is hardly reported. What count are the initial arrests and the media frenzy which follows. Front page headlines splashed with the predicted death toll arising from these foiled 'terrorist atrocities' and photos showing dawn raids stick in the mind of the public.

In April 2004 ten Iraqis and North Africans were arrested in the north of England on suspicion of planning to bomb Manchester United's football stadium. The individuals were detained for eight days but no charges were made. It later emerged that the so called terrorists were Manchester United fans and the supposedly incriminating tickets were for a game two years previously.

Similarly in December 2002 nine Algerian men were arrested for supposedly setting up a ricin poison factory. No ricin was ever found and no criminal charges were brought. As with the war in Iraq the evidence is non-existent.

The Institute of Race Relations which analysed the data relating to these anti-terror arrests stated that 'since arrests under anti-terrorist laws attract widespread media coverage while convictions of non-Muslims in court have not been widely reported, most people are left with the impression that the criminal justice system is successfully prosecuting Muslim terrorists in Britain. The reality is that large numbers of innocent Muslims are being arrested, questioned and released.'

Blunkett claims existing powers are inadequate for dealing with terrorism. According to Liberty 'almost without exception these people could have been arrested under the ordinary criminal law'. If the government already had various powers to arrest individuals why are they bringing in new powers? Part of the reason is that those arrested under anti-terror legislation have fewer rights. The government is creating a twin-track criminal justice system. Nowhere is this more explicit than in the detention without trial of foreign nationals.

Twelve men, all Muslims, have been arrested and most are in HMP Belmarsh or HMP Woodhill. Amnesty International describes the situation as 'a Guantanamo in our own backyard', and conditions at Belmarsh as 'cruel, inhuman and degrading'.

The government must only show it has reasonable grounds to suspect that foreign nationals have links to terrorists before issuing certificates to incarcerate them and hold them indefinitely. No hard evidence needs to be produced, which is why they cannot be brought to trial, because there is no evidence that will stand up in court. Moreover, neither the detainees nor their legal representatives have been told on what evidence the Government is imprisoning them.

The definition of terrorism has been widened significantly. To be classed as a terrorist no longer requires an individual to undertake extreme acts of violence, but simply to support any activities which undermine a state. As Gareth Peirce, solicitor for some of the detainees, states, 'Any government, however brutal, is now reassured that this country [Britain] has the capacity if it wishes to prosecute its dissidents as terrorists.'

Miscarriages of justice

Blunkett would like this power extended to all those suspected of terrorism, not just foreign nationals. Most alarming of all, the Court of Appeal has ruled that evidence obtained outside of Britain using torture can still be used in UK courts provided Britain was not involved in using torture.

The current climate shares many similarities with how Britain dealt with the Northern Ireland situation 30 years ago. Internment was completely ineffective in catching terrorists or reducing the numbers attracted to the IRA. Miscarriages of justice such as the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four increased bitterness. A similar pattern is emerging among the Muslim population in Britain. According to Dr Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, detention 'will be seen by the community as a war on Islam, not a war on terror. This will serve no useful purpose except to fuel further extremism, which every sensible person wants to avoid.'

Each month greater powers are handed to the state. Since February police can detain terror suspects without charge for 14 days instead of seven. In March the government agreed that US extradition requests need not carry any prima facie evidence (evidence that is accepted as correct unless proved otherwise). When Lofti Raissi was detained in Belmarsh after being accused by US authorities of training the pilots in the 11 September attacks, a judge ruled there was not enough evidence on which Raissi could be extradited to the US. That would not happen now. And in August the Home Office published a consultation paper which proposes to allow the police to detain suspects for any offence, rather than only those that attract a prison sentence.

The effect of all of this legislation is to insinuate that all Muslims are terrorists and not British. They are to be viewed as an alien community. This is not a passing fad. Islamophobia is becoming institutionalised.

Yet this attack on civil liberties is not solely confined to Muslims. Stop and searches under the Terrorism Act have increased but so have general stop and searches under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. In total there were 869,164 stop and searches in 2002/03, of which only 2.5 percent were searches under the Terrorism Act. There has been a significant rise in stop and searches and they are at their highest level since 1998/99. This reveals that the police have regained their confidence since the Macpherson inquiry slammed them for being 'institutionally racist'. On the back of stamping down on terrorism they have been allowed to reaffirm their racist policing policies. The black population has faced the brunt of this clampdown. Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and Asians twice as likely.

Anti-terror legislation affects all of us and lets the government bring in other forms of repressive legislation. As Helena Kennedy, the civil liberties lawyer, recently stated, 'It is very easy in the aftermath of terrible events to succumb to the comforting paternalism of politicians who persuade us that the sacrifice of liberty is worth the warm blanket of security... Terrorism simply provides a climate favourable for repressive legislation which would not otherwise be sanctioned.'

This climate of fear and removal of civil liberties is not inevitable and need not be permanent. Stop the War showed the great potential for undercutting this hysteria regarding Muslims. It showed that the working class, black and white, Muslim or Christian, could unite in the fight to stop the war on Iraq. We need to do the same around these anti-terror laws. As Babar Ahmed, a detainee at HMP Woodhill who is facing extradition to the US, wrote in Socialist Worker, 'Yesterday it was the Irish. Today it is the Muslims. And tomorrow it will be the leftists, socialists, anti-war and anti-racism campaigners if this is allowed to continue.' We need to make sure this does not continue.