he 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
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
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
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,
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