Long before George Bush declared a 'war on terror' in September 2001, Britain already had a head start with its own anti-terror laws. But its strategy has recently gone into crisis, especially the powers to intern foreign nationals.
Those powers were officially justified by a supposed 'public emergency threatening the life of the nation'. As the government faces growing opposition to internment, the home secretary desperately tries to maintain a fake emergency, central to its politics of fear. To avoid criticism for discrimination, moreover, he has proposed yet new powers to impose 'control orders' upon anyone, including house arrest. Many MPs are now supporting such measures - similar to the 'banning orders' under apartheid in South Africa, which they opposed not long ago.
How did we get here? This 'anti-terror' strategy complements a global neoliberal agenda which can be imposed only through systematic violence. Britain enacted these special laws in order to deter domestic opposition to its role in carrying out illegal wars and supporting state terrorist regimes, eg in Colombia, Israel-Palestine, Turkey and Indonesia.
For that reason, the Terrorism Act 2000 more broadly redefined 'terrorism' to encompass a wide range of ordinary political activities. Its definition blurs any distinction between organised 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. As Tony Benn warned back then, this law aimed to ensure that resistance to oppressive regimes abroad would have no support in Britain. Soon it was being used to criminalise Kurdish and Turkish activists for supposed association with banned organisations.
Later the World Trade Centre attack was used as a pretext for an even more severe law, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) 2001. Internment was the most extreme of several powers which stigmatised entire Muslim and migrant communities as 'terrorist suspects'. It also authorised 'stop and search' powers which can be used arbitrarily against anyone. These powers have been used to harass political activists, for example 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, eg to Palestine and Chechnya, on 'suspicion' of funding terrorism.
All these measures created a climate of fear among Muslims in particular, threatening to weaken anti-war and anti-imperialist activities.
Internment targeted refugees from North African countries, thus colluding with regimes which suppress anti-imperialist resistance. These powers were given a quasi-judicial façade by a star chamber, the Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal. SIAC simply deferred to government claims about 'international terrorists'. Some internees were held on the basis of secret evidence obtained by torturing people illegally held in detention centres abroad such as Guantanamo Bay, sometimes in the presence of MI5 agents. Meanwhile Special Branch officers terrorised friends and relatives of the internees here, by warning them against any contact with the families.
A high-profile network to oppose internment has brought together human rights activists, migrant groups, lawyers and Muslim organisations, especially Stop Political Terror, which formed in 2004. Together they have held numerous protests-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'.
After a series of court cases and appeals, in December 2004 the Law Lords finally ruled that the internment powers were illegal, disproportionate and discriminatory. 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.
But it will be a hollow victory unless mass resistance prevents the use, renewal or extension of 'anti-terror' powers. To protect our basic rights, we need to demand the immediate release of anyone detained under those illegitimate powers, and to support the families of those being targeted.