Socialist Worker

Sweet land of liberty?

by Helen Shooter
Issue No. 1816

'DEMOCRACIES, RATHER than dictatorships, are taking the lead in curbing civil liberties.' That is the conclusion of a human rights report recently published by Amnesty International. It highlights the US and Britain's attacks on civil rights in the wake of 11 September.

Bush and Blair's new laws have meant thousands of innocent people have been arrested or locked up. Most people were shocked by the images earlier this year of the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. About 600 people are currently imprisoned at the base only on suspicion of having a connection to Al Qaida or the Taliban. Doctors admit at least 30 of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners have attempted suicide.

They have no right to a jury trial. They will be tried by five military officers, who can authorise the death sentence. Inside the US the Patriot Act, rammed through in October, allows indefinite detention of people who are not US citizens if Bush's attorney general John Ashcroft says they are terrorists.

The US government can also indefinitely hold any US citizens it regards as 'enemy combatants'. More than 1,200 people, mostly from Middle Eastern and Muslim countries, have been arrested since 11 September. Not one has been convicted of any terrorist offences.

Amnesty International reports that many of these people have suffered physical and verbal abuse and that they were held in prolonged solitary confinement. The majority of these people have since been deported from the US after secret hearings.

Some in the US establishment have condemned Bush's attacks on civil rights. A federal appeal court in Cincinnati ruled last week that the secret deportation hearings were 'profoundly undemocratic' and unlawful. The American Bar Association, which represents over half the judges and lawyers in the US, has denounced the secret detention of people.

Arab-American groups denounced Bush for violating their civil rights since 11 September at a public meeting in Detroit in July. Witnesses referred to behind closed doors immigration hearings, secret detentions, racial profiling and coerced interviews with tens of thousands of Arab men.

But the man Bush appointed to the US civil rights commission said they should stop complaining as another attack linked to Arabs or Muslims would result in far harsher measures, adding, 'You can forget about civil rights.' US immigration officials and the FBI conducted sweeps in July in shopping centres throughout the country targeting Pakistanis working in jewellery kiosks. They claimed they wanted to find people who were sending money to Pakistan 'to fund terror operations'.

One of the victims of the sweep was Tariq Hussain. He said the officials searched his apartment and found his tourist photos of Times Square. 'Are you planning to attack there or something,' he was asked. Tony Blair has copied many of Bush's attacks on civil liberties. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act came into force in February this year.

It allows for even more harsh measures than New Labour's Terrorism Act 2000. It can detain foreign nationals indefinitely without charge or trial. Up to May this year 155 people had been arrested, and some were detained, according to the latest figures available from the civil rights group Statewatch.

Some 98 people were released without any charge against them. Nine are still being held in indefinite detention despite a ruling in July that the government had acted unlawfully.

The first person to go on trial was acquitted last month at the High Court. Suleyman Zainulabdin, a London chef, was arrested in October. He was accused of 'inviting another to receive instruction or training in making or using firearms or explosives'. The jury agreed Zainulabdin's website offered nothing more than a martial arts course for which 'sometimes no one would turn up at all'.

Amnesty International concludes the US and British attacks on civil rights have wider implications. 'The fires of racism were refuelled as governments restricted the rights of foreigners, particularly asylum seekers, who have been increasingly portrayed as terrorists. People were attacked not for what they did but who they were.'

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Article information

Sat 7 Sep 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1816
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