Where could ordinary people be arrested and locked up indefinitely without a trial and without being told the charges against them? Britain, under home secretary David Blunkett’s new anti-terrorism laws. It exposes the ‘democracy’ Britain and the US claim they stand for around the world.
The prime minister’s spokesperson boasted that ‘we have some of the toughest laws anywhere in the world’ after the government’s Terrorism Act earlier this year. Now Blunkett wants to go further. Someone could be jailed indefinitely without trial if the home secretary labels them a suspected foreign terrorist. This is wiping out habeas corpus, the principle that no one can be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned which has existed since the 17th century.
Blunkett has labelled his critics ‘airy fairy libertarians’. But as John Wadham from the human rights organisation Liberty said, ‘The government wants to jail people not for anything they have done but for what the home secretary thinks they might do in the future. Other illiberal measures are being smuggled in under the cover of proposals to deal with the events of 11 September. Too many of these measures will not make us safer but will make us less free.’
Blunkett claims the anti-terrorism bill is not like internment, which the British Tory government introduced in Northern Ireland 30 years ago. It will be targeted at ‘a handful of people’ who are ‘known’ terrorists. Northern Ireland’s prime minister, Brian Faulkner, also argued that each of the 342 Catholics arrested in August 1971 ‘was either a terrorist or a member of the IRA’.
This was a lie. Leaders of the non-violent civil rights movement were arrested along with socialists, trade unionists and ordinary Catholics. No Loyalists were arrested although Loyalist groups had been responsible for most of the killings in Northern Irland, mainly of innocent Catholics, since the mid-1960s.
The European court of human rights later ruled that the British government was guilty of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ of the prisoners who suffered physical and mental torture. Catholics were so horrified at internment that they began mass resistance to it. Thousands joined protests against internment including a march in Derry in January 1972. It was called ‘Bloody Sunday’ after British soldiers killed 14 unarmed demonstrators.
The British government finally abandoned internment in 1975, after the resulting repression led many young Catholics to turn to the IRA to defend their communities. During the Gulf War in 1991 the Tory government rounded up ‘terrorist suspects’ in Britain.
Some 90 nationals from Arabic countries were imprisoned without charge. Many were held in solitary confinement for days. Few were ever charged with any offence. Arrests
A solicitor who dealt with some of those arrested told Socialist Worker, ‘They grabbed anyone from a Middle East background doing engineering and science research work. Some were in Britain on scholarships funded by British companies. I went down to Pentonville prison to interview them about their cases. At one stage there were 40 of them in that prison. They were not given any information as to why they were detained. All they could do was protest their innocence in a fairly general way.’
The security services based their ‘intelligence’ and arrests on out of date files and rumours. The round-up included businessmen, campaigners against Saddam Hussein and leading Palestinian moderates. Students were arrested after being labelled as military personnel.
The US chairman of an insurance company was arrested, as was a man mistakenly arrested because he had the same surname as another suspect. A campaign grew against the arrest in north London of Palestinian-born refugee Abbas Shiblak.
He and his family had been granted permission to stay in Britain. But after the Gulf War started the police and immigration officers tried to deport him for ‘reasons of national security’. Abbas Shiblak had been a public critic of the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Yet he was imprisoned.
As one letter writer in the Times last week, Professor Brian Simpson, commented on Blunkett’s new plans, ‘Judging from the previous use of the power of detention in wartime Britain, in Northern Ireland, and during the Gulf War, it is highly probable that the power will be abused.’
Blunkett’s new bill could criminalise many ordinary people across Britain. Under New Labour’s current Terrorism Act demonstrators can already be labelled ‘terrorists’. Now Blunkett has buried away in the ‘miscellaneous’ section of his new bill a plan to ‘speed up extradition arrangements between European member states’.
A government faced with a demonstration like the July protest in Genoa against the G8 summit could demand a ‘terrorist’ demonstrator is raced to its country to face charges. Blunkett’s new bill will also increase police powers to target demonstrators in Britain.
It will be a criminal offence to publish details of the movement of nuclear waste trains. This will affect the work of groups like CND, which have campaigned against the transport of dangerous nuclear material.
Officers will also be allowed to jail for a month anyone who refuses to remove a mask, gloves or face paint ‘in a place where the police think violence may take place’.
As Paul Routledge, the Labour-supporting political editor of the Mirror, said on Friday of last week, ‘Face paint? Gloves? These powers are not being introduced to deal with international terrorists. They are aimed at British protesters over animal rights, global capitalism and other contentious issues such as nuclear power stations. Mostly they are just kids who feel strongly about aspects of life.’
The law may not be used to its fullest extent even after it is rushed through parliament for Christmas.
But New Labour clearly wants to use the ‘war on terrorism’ to further attack refugees by labelling them terrorists, and crush the rights of all of us to protest.
The crackdown on civil rights in Britain is being matched across the wo$rld. US president George Bush has introduced military courts which can be convened anywhere in the world and sentence suspected ‘terrorists’ to death. The convicted would only be able to appeal to Bush or his deputy defence secretary Rumsfeld. The US government could prevent any evidence against the convicted person ever being disclosed.
In Egypt 23 gay men were given jail terms of up to five years on Thursday of last week after the government used legislation covering ‘matters of national security’ to prosecute them. The law was supposedly passed to stop the threat of ‘Islamic terrorists’. But the government could use it to attack gay rights.
Police raided the disco on the Nile where the men were and beat up many people. Appeal The men have no right of appeal and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak personally has power over their sentences.
In South Africa the government is also pushing through new anti-terrorism laws which compare to those under the repression of the apartheid era.
A ‘terrorist act’ will include ‘damage to property or disruption of any public service or creation of unrest.’ The penalty will be five years in prison. Martin Schonteich, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, said, ‘Given the broad definition such a provision could be used to criminalise the actions of a wide range of people.
‘It could apply to all members of a taxi organisation that organised a street blockade whether the members were involved in the blockade or not.’ An individual’s right to silence will also be removed. Detention without charge, a key tool used by the apartheid regime to break down those in custody, may be reintroduced.
The police will also have wider powers to stop and search, whether or not they have grounds for suspecting someone may be connected to terrorism.
Imperialist tensions are heating up
More Islamophobia in the Tory party