Socialist Worker

Blunkett targets all our freedoms

by Joseph Choonara
Issue No. 1890

Guantanamo-style 'justice' comes to New Labour Britain

'I LIE awake at night searching...searching for the answer to the constant question, why me?' These are the words of a prisoner held in Belmarsh prison- Britain's Guantanamo Bay. He is one of 14 foreigners locked up under David Blunkett's anti-terrorism laws.

Like the other prisoners he is an official 'non-person'-his name is unknown. The detainees are held in Belmarsh, south east London, and other prisons around the country. They are locked up in cells for up to 22 hours a day. They have never been put on trial or charged with any crime. Their appeal, which took place a year and a half after their detention, was held in secret.

The appeal, made by ten of the prisoners, was rejected. Their lawyers were forced to leave the room when the evidence was discussed. It is thought that some of the evidence against the prisoners was obtained under torture abroad.

Some came from the prisoners held illegally by the US at Guantanamo Bay, who have been interrogated by MI6 as well as the CIA. The human rights organisation Amnesty International describes Belmarsh high security prison as 'Guantanamo Bay in our own backyard'. Some of the prisoners were arrested over two years ago when new laws, passed in the wake of 11 September, came into effect.

There have been concerns over the conditions in which the prisoners are being held. A prison officer at Belmarsh won £28,000 in compensation last year following racist abuse at the hands of fellow staff officers. They urinated on him and told him he stank. He claimed that there was 'rampant' racism at the prison. If they can do that to one of their own, imagine what gets meted out to prisoners labelled part of Al Qaida.

Prison officers have shown insensitivity towards the prisoners, who are all Muslims. Guards have interrupted prayers and tried to make the prisoners celebrate Eid ul-Adha (the main Muslim festival) a day late, claiming there were staff shortages.

Prison officers cut off phone calls when the prisoners used basic Muslim greetings. They thought that the prisoners were talking in code. Gareth Peirce is a solicitor representing 11 of the detainees. She said, 'They are simply locked up and the key has been thrown away. A significant and growing percentage of them are suffering from mental illness and serious forms of depression-not just them, but their families as well.'


Security services

Secret state: more spies than at height of the Cold War

BLUNKETT ALSO wants to recruit thousands of new spies, increasing the number to a level higher than anything seen during the Cold War. MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Special Branch could all see new recruits. Around £400 million will be needed to pay for the new spies-bringing the budget to £1.5 billion.

These spies will be used to target anyone the state-or even a maverick part of it-claims is a threat. That does not just include alleged terrorists. The British state has used its spies against trade unionists and other campaigners in the past. Its targets have included anti-fascists and the anti-apartheid campaign, which were both infiltrated by spies.

The state spied on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the National Council for Civil Liberties-led at that time by Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman, who are now leading figures in New Labour. Above all it spied on the trade unions. One member of the Special Branch estimated that MI5 kept at least a million files in its archives.

These detailed every major industrial dispute and included 40 volumes each on Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones-leaders of the TGWU and AUEW unions in the 1970s. They were seen as the equivalent of left wing union leaders Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka at the time.

MI5 used figures like Ray Buckton, leader of the Aslef rail union, to spy on trade unionists throughout the 1970s. The information they received from these and 21 other 'senior trade unionists' allowed them to help employers blacklist union activists and to break strikes. The top spooks have won their positions by proving their loyalty to the ruling class throughout their careers.

Stella Rimington, who was the head of MI5 until 1996, climbed to the top of her profession by spying on miners during their 1984-5 strike. After the strike MI5 helped the Tories in their attempts to smear miners' leader Arthur Scargill, accusing him of taking bribes from the Libyan government. Even Harold Wilson, leader of the 1974 Labour government, and hardly a left wing figure, was subject to a smear campaign by Britain's spies.

Peter Wright, a former MI5 agent, admitted in his book Spycatcher that right wing fanatics within MI5 burgled the homes of Wilson's staff and bugged 10 Downing Street. The most recent example of how our rulers use the spies was seen in the war in Iraq.

Now, to cover his back, Blair is claiming he was misled by intelligence from Britain's spies. But his government is authorising an unprecedented increase in the number of spies and in their powers.


The new laws

Now guilty until proved innocent

MPs were set to vote on whether to renew Blunkett's powers under the Terrorism Act on Wednesday of this week. On the same day he was set to publish proposals for a massive expansion of those laws. He wants to extend the laws used to hold the prisoners at Belmarsh. Currently he is only allowed to detain foreign nationals without trial. Now he wants to be able to lock up British citizens as well.

Blunkett plans to lower the standard of proof required to convict people of crimes under the Terrorism Act. Instead of having to prove someone was guilty 'beyond reasonable doubt', the court would have to find that someone was guilty 'on the balance of probabilities'.

This would mean that it was easier to convict someone of terrorism than of a vehicle speeding offence. And it would not even be necessary for the suspect to commit a crime for them to face a prison sentence. Blunkett wants to be able to convict someone for their intention to commit a crime-a so called 'pre-emptive' conviction.

He also plans to allow courts to meet in secret, and to consider evidence from phone taps and covert video surveillance to convict suspects. Defence lawyers will be banned under the Official Secrets Act from questioning the validity of that evidence or asking for other surveillance material to be disclosed.

Anthony Scrivener is former chair of the barristers' organisation, the Bar Council. He says of these Guantanamo-style procedures: 'To justify detention you have to have evidence. The nonexistence of this evidence is not a justification for allowing a conviction without evidence on the say-so of some unidentified politician or state official, or on a lower standard of proof. It is only a justification for release and a verdict of not guilty.'


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Article information

Features
Sat 28 Feb 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1890
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