A Simple Matter of Political Logic

January 25, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

While waiting for a friend at Liverpool Street Station, Stephen Chong, 28, was stopped by two police officers and a sniffer-dog for a random bomb search. “The police said they picked me because I looked lost”, said Mr Chong.

If the police actually suspected Mr Chong of a terrorism offence, they could have locked him up for 28 days without charge. The government is now proposing to extent this to 42 days. Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky. Lack of political will in its own party meant Labour could not increase pre-charge detention to 90 days. To Labour, 42 days seems a plausible compromise.

Of his experience, Mr Chong added: “They apologised for any inconvenience caused, explaining that this was necessary to stop terrorists.”

Pre-charge detention amounts to punishment before the person has even been charged with any offence. For non-terrorism related offences, which can of course include some of society’s most heinous crimes, the police can hold a suspect of up to 96 hours. What intelligence can police obtain from an individual in 28, or 42, days that they can’t in 96 hours?

Even in the United States – the proponent nation of the constant need and desire to gain and maintain security – authorities can only hold an individual for 2 days pre-charge detention under their terrorism laws. There is no reason, other than that of perceived political necessity, for Britain to exclusively have to afford its authorities such a draconian mandate.

The rule of law allows governments to restrict individual liberties and freedoms where it is necessary and justified. The rationale afforded to the public by the Labour administration that the terrorism laws are justified is not only unsupported by any hard evidence that the laws are needed, but it is blatantly false. Any increase in the already harsh anti-terrorism laws would be a further breach of the rule of law by the government.

The terrorism laws are unnecessary because the police already have the requisite powers to combat the threat of terrorism in previously existing legislation.

According to Liz Davies, barrister and chairwoman of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers: “Under the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the police have the power to stop and search an individual where there is a reasonable suspicion that s/he is carrying an offensive weapon or drugs. Obviously a bomb in a rucksack is an offensive weapon.” If the police actually believed Mr Chong had a bomb in his backpack, they did not need their counter terrorism powers to stop and search him at Liverpool Street Station.

The anti-terrorism laws simply afford police an unnecessary period to investigate a terrorism offence, which is defined extraordinarily broadly so as to even catch so-called ‘terrorist sympathises’.

The unnecessary time period, coupled with the breadth of the terrorism offence definition, make the laws under-pinning Britain’s counter-terrorism regime wholly unjustified.

Unnecessary and unjustified laws that erode basic human rights and civil liberties have a threatening effect on democracy. Such laws indicate a government’s preparedness to undermine the rule of law. Worse still than being unnecessary, counter-terrorism laws around the world are viewed as ineffective in fulfilling their purpose of maintaining national security and keeping democracy safe.

Unlike Britain’s current 28 day detention without trial regime, authorities in Australia can only hold an individual under the ASIO (Terrorism) Act for five days. However, the laws in Australia are still seen by many to be vastly undemocratic. According to Dr Joo-Cheong Tham, senior law lecturer at the University of Melbourne, “the perception that Muslims are being disproportionately targeted has created a distrust of authorities and police within the Muslim communities, which can impede efforts to counter terrorism. Important intelligence will come from the communities.”

It is a simple matter of political logic. If a government rationally believes that groups within its society hold extremist anti-social views, and has solid grounds to think that those groups will cause serious harm to the remainder of the community, it should work with those communities to combat and prevent such damage.

The government has successfully banished and disillusioned a section of the community arguably the most vital in preventing terrorism.

The Muslim Council of Britain collectively states: “The debate surrounding this issue is seen as a grossly unjust victimisation of a community under the spotlight and is likely for that reason to have the effect of fuelling anger and frustration.”

What Labour has achieved by aggressively continuing to put forward a tough counter-terrorism regime based around prolonged detention without trial is an atmosphere of communal fear. While there is sense of injustice and anger felt by a part of the community against the authorities, and this injustice and anger is not effectively addressed, terrorism will remain a risk. Remember never to look lost at Liverpool Street Station.

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This post was written by Vanessa Stevens

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