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Ending the Presumption of Guilt

Doug Jewell and Mhairi McGhee outline the case against Labour’s anti-terror measures.

The 2001 Parliament was only a few months old when the horrific attacks of September 11 th took place. Within weeks the British Parliament responded by rushing through the 2001 Anti-Terror Crime and Security Act. Britain at this time already had some of the most draconian legislation in the world designed to fight terrorism; the 2001 Act managed to go further- it allowed for the detention of foreign suspects without trial.

In order to pass this Act the Government had to derogate from Article Five of the European Convention on Human Rights. With this decision made it was free to begin the detention of suspects and over the next four years seventeen men spent time in Belmarsh jail, despite the fact that none had been charged or put on trial.

Liberty spent four years campaigning to reverse this draconian and counter-productive policy. We believed that there was a terrorist threat facing this country and that serious measures were needed to combat it. We also believed that while this policy did not make us safer it did guarantee miscarriages of justice due to its reliance upon secret intelligence heard in secret session where the suspect had no opportunity to respond.

For Liberty the bottom line is that if people are suspected of serious offences, such as those connected with terrorism, they should be put on trial and given the chance to prove their innocence. We are prepared to see changes in the law to make this easier, for example we believe we should allow for wiretap evidence to be admissible in court.

On the 16 th December the House of Lords produced its historic ruling that the detention without trial of foreign nationals was unlawful. Unfortunately the Government responded not by bringing forward proposals to effectively challenge terrorism but instead it chose to extend the principle of punishment without trial from foreign nationals to all people resident in the UK. After two weeks of fierce but flimsy ‘debate’ by our democratic representatives, the public was faced with a vision of a horrifying future Britain. One where tough talk and secret intelligence replaced the rule of law.

The 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed and introduced executive control orders. Control orders restrict freedom of movement and association and access to communications equipment. Subjects can be placed under curfew, tagged, or ‘required to remain at their premises’. There is no right to trial and no access to the ‘intelligence’ against you. If you break any part of the order you can be incarcerated.

It is under these conditions that the Belmarsh detainees have been released into the community. These men have been held without charge or trial, without access to, or knowledge of the secret intelligence against them (some of which may have been extracted under torture) for over three years.

In practical terms the callously confused first weekend of this legislation demonstrated how terror ‘suspects’ are now treated. Since their incarceration several of the men have become dependent on psychiatric support which they lost immediately on their ‘release’ from secure units. The Home Office emergency help-line was manned by an answer phone and one of the detainees, a double amputee was even provided with a non-modified, unusable phone to access vital support.

One suspect, Abu Rideh, has already been charged with breaking the conditions of his control order after he reported himself to the Police. He could not face wearing his electronic tag and has now attempted to take his own life on four occasions.

The advent of punishment without charge or trial marked the end of hundreds of years of the presumption of innocence under our law. In the final stages of the passage of the PTA the Government promised even more legislation in 2006. The New Labour manifesto gave a hint of what would be in this legislation when it promised to make it a criminal offence to ‘condone acts of terror’.

It is to be hoped that the reduced Government majority will focus people’s attention on the legislation already in place as well as that proposed. We would like to see the repeal of the PTA and a commitment that any future legislation will meet human rights standards. We would also like to see measures such as ID cards, which will not help the fight against terrorism but will erode our civil liberties, cancelled.

Terrorism needs to be dealt with seriously and appropriately, through the investigation and conviction of terrorists, not through the deionisation of vulnerable or marginal individuals on the basis of un-testable secret intelligence. The last Parliament both began and ended with the passage of rushed, draconian and counter-productive legislation.

The new Parliament should correct that mistake and return to the principle of the presumption of innocence.

The authors both work for Liberty