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Terror laws will only bring more injustice

New Labour’s rush after the London bombs to grant more powers to the police will not be effective in combating terrorism, says Nick Wrack

Issue No. 1961

Police ransack a house in south London during an anti-terror raid last week  (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Police ransack a house in south London during an anti-terror raid last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)


WITH PREDICTABLE speed the home secretary Charles Clarke has announced the introduction of yet more laws ostensibly to combat terrorism.

Not content with an already extensive array of “anti-terror” legislation, the government is using the recent bomb attacks in London to give further powers to the police and courts.

Nobody should believe that these proposed new laws are necessary or that they will be effective in combating terrorism.

The new laws are designed to convey the impression that the government is acting to deal with terrorist threats. In reality they will lead to more miscarriages of justice and alienate those against whom they will be directed—Muslims living in Britain and abroad.

At the core of the new bill will be the creation of three new offences. The first criminalises “acts preparatory to terrorism”. The second outlaws “indirect incitement to terrorism”. The third deals with the giving and receiving of terrorist training.

The objection to the first new offence is that there are already laws covering such activities.

The laws of conspiracy and attempt, let alone the “anti-terror” legislation introduced since 1997, are more than sufficient for dealing with anybody involved in such preparatory acts.

The more worrying aspect is the extremely vague way in which terrorism has been defined by the legislation already passed.

These new powers pose the possibility of people being arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment on the basis of evidence showing no link at all to terrorist acts.

When does an act become “preparatory”? Are you guilty if you make a phone call, buy a plane ticket, put up a relative, invite someone to dinner or pick them up at the train station?

The second new offence shows the dangers even more starkly. Direct incitement to commit acts of violence is already a criminal offence.

Introducing the proposals to the House of Commons, Clarke said, “The proposal targets those who, although not directly inciting, glorify and condone acts, knowing full well that the effect on their listeners will be to encourage them to turn them into terrorists.”

How will this be determined? Will the expression of understanding of what leads young men and women to become suicide bombers, such as those statements of Cherie Blair and Jenny Tonge, be deemed to encourage others to follow their example?

Will support for attacks on government personnel or property in Israel or Iraq be deemed illegal? Will the expression of a belief that a suicide bomber has gone to heaven fall foul of the criminal law?

Home office minister Hazel Blears has said that it will be used against anyone who says that suicide bombers are martyrs. This seems to be a dangerous incursion into the right of free speech and religious belief.

At first sight the third new offence seems unobjectionable. But why is it being introduced? As Clarke said in parliament, “Our existing law already criminalises much activity that could fall within that description of giving and receiving terrorist training.” So, it is unnecessary.

But it will be used to detain many young Muslims travelling to and from, for example, Pakistan, solely on the suspicion that they have attended training camps.

Increased surveillance of Muslim communities has also been announced. Special squads will be established, called Muslim Contact Units, run by members of Special Branch, to infiltrate and spy on Muslims generally. The harassment of Muslims is set to get worse.

The problem with all of these proposals, as with all anti-terror laws, is that people will be arrested and detained for long periods on the suspicion that they have committed such offences.

Most of the people who have been arrested for suspected involvement in terrorism over the last few years have been released without charge.

These additional laws are not enough for the police. The Association of Chief Police Officers has demanded even wider powers, including the right to detain anyone suspected of terrorist offences for three months without charge.

The police currently have the right to detain terrorist suspects for 14 days without charge. Inevitably, innocent people will be left in police custody without charges against them and not knowing the evidence against them.

The experience of internment in Northern Ireland in the 1970s showed that many thousands of men and women were arrested and detained for long periods for no reason. The same threat faces Muslims in Britain.

Of course, none of the proposed or existing anti-terror laws make Britain safer. The reasons that drive young men and women to blow themselves up will not be removed by the passing of new laws or the enforcement of old ones.

As Alex Standish, editor of Jane’s Intelligence Digest, has pointed out, even Israel, with the world’s tightest security, “has not been able in every case to prevent suicide bombers”.

The only policies that will reduce the threat of terrorist attacks and dry up the stream of new recruits are those that address the international issues that fuel anger and resentment.


An unacceptable list

Home secretary Charles Clarke has also announced that intelligence, foreign and home office staff will compile a database of individuals who are considered unacceptable because of their actions or words. Anyone on the list will be excluded from entering Britain. Removing people will be made easier.

But such a list would be unreliable. The Pakistani authorities said that one of the London suicide bombers had visited there recently, only for it to be a different 16 year old boy with the same name living in High Wycombe.

One man is to be sent back to Jordan following assurances that he will not be tortured. Amnesty International said that the assurances were “not worth the paper they are written on”.

In addition, Clarke wants more powers to track private e-mails, text messages and telephone calls.

Nick Wrack is a barrister and a leading member of Respect.


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Sat 30 Jul 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1961
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