In an astonishing breach of normal legal procedure, home secretary Jacqui Smith last week sent five bailed men to prison, overriding the ruling of a senior judge.
Mr Justice Mitting had refused a government request to detain the men on Thursday of last week. Yet Smith simply ignored this decision – and ordered that the men be taken into custody anyway.
Two were driven off in vans from their court hearing. They thought they were heading home – but found themselves taken to Belmarsh prison instead. The others were arrested at home that evening in front of their families.
After sharp legal arguments the following day, four of the men were released back on bail. But a fifth man, known only as Mr U, remained in Belmarsh prison as Socialist Worker went to press.
Lawyers for the men condemned the home secretary’s arbitrary use of custodial power, accusing her of “open contempt for the role of the judiciary”.
“If ministers decide to simply flaunt decisions of the court in that very direct way, we’re in the midst of a constitutional crisis,” said solicitor Gareth Peirce. “It’s dangerous, it’s ugly and it’s unlawful.”
Civil liberties campaigners also condemned the move. “We seem to be experiencing a new version of the divine right of kings,” said writer and activist Andy Worthington, author of The Guantanamo Files.
“It’s the self-declared right of an elected government official to ignore her own judges, and cast foreign ‘terror suspects’ into the modern day version of the Tower of London – Belmarsh prison.”
According to some observers, lawyers for the men had pressed for legal moves against Jacqui Smith on grounds of contempt of court and kidnap following her decision to detain them.
A court decision to free four of the men back on bail was taken on Friday of last week as an alternative to this embarrassing course of action.
The government presented “secret evidence” against Mr U to justify his imprisonment.
The use of “secret evidence” is one of the most unjust aspects of the shadowy Special Immigration Appeals Court (SIAC) system, which was set up by the government to help it deport immigrants considered a “threat to national security”.
The courts can be emptied for the judge to hear “evidence” from the intelligence services. Neither the defendants nor their lawyers are allowed to know what this evidence is – let alone challenge it.
The SIAC cases also throw a stark light on the government’s willingness to go along with torture – which has been highlighted by wider revelations recently including the case of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed.
The five men are all resisting attempts to send them to Algeria and Jordan on the grounds that they would be tortured by security services there.
The government tried to deport them anyway. When it was blocked because of the risk of torture, it negotiated diplomatic “agreements” with the Algerian and Jordanian governments assuring that the men would not be tortured once they were deported.
Human rights groups have denounced these “agreements” as spurious and worthless. Both regimes have an appalling human rights record.
And the British government has a record of complicity in torture.
The five men have never been charged with any crime. The only evidence against them consists of whispers and rumours from spies and spooks.
In any decent justice system they would walk free. Instead they have been held for years on draconian bail conditions – at least 20 hours curfew each day, electronic tags, only vetted visitors, no internet, computer or mobile phone access.
They are regularly vilified as “Islamic extremists” or “terror suspects” in the press.
Civil liberties campaigners are now stepping up their campaign to end the arbitrary, unjust and barbarous treatment of these men.
On Wednesday of this week they will protest at a SIAC hearing to discuss objections from the European Court of Human Rights to the use of secret evidence.
Mr U’s bail conditions come under review at another meeting the next day.
The police have increasing powers to ban protests under “anti-terrorism” legislation and have targetted anti-war campaigners in particular.
But public awareness of the government’s attacks on civil liberties, and anger at them, is rising.
For more information on the SIAC trials go to » www.andyworthington.co.uk