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Rights, freedoms and terror

Shami Chakrabarti argues that the government’s response to the bombings went in the wrong direction once the Prime Minister became involved.

No one, especially those who live in London, will forget the 7th July 2005. The original feeling of impatience with a major transport failure and the slow dawning reality as news channel pictures rolled in. Finally the scramble to contact loved ones and colleagues and seek assurances they were not amongst the growing list of casualties.

Nor will anyone who was in the Liberty Office at that time forget the atmosphere when we heard the initial, measured and statesmanlike comments of the politicians and the Police. Their determination that those involved in terrorism would be brought to justice and that our unity in the face of these attacks was to be preserved. We were relieved that a knee-jerk reaction was to be avoided and that the broad consensus necessary to defeat terrorism was possible.

As people stood in Trafalgar Square at the London United event in the following week that feeling of quiet determination and unity was palpable. Liberty has always stated its view that there is a terrorist threat and that the Government should take appropriate steps to protect the public from terrorism. Our belief is that it is possible to reconcile security with liberties and rights, and that we are stronger when we do just that. We believed that a broad consensus aimed at defeating terrorism in this way could be built.

All of this changed on the 5th August when the Prime Minister announced that ‘the rules of the game are changing’. In a press conference lasting ninety minutes he managed to unpick the consensus and to lay down a twelve point plan that would divide people at a time when unity was vital.

Some of those twelve points have been put in place, like the publication of new guidelines for deporting - excluding people from the UK. Some have been dropped because they would have created offences such as ‘justifying’ terrorism that would have been so broad as to be effectively useless.

The bulk of the remaining points have made it into the new Terrorism Bill 2005.

Liberty is concerned that a number of measures in the bill will do little to make us safer but will undermine free speech and protections against unjustified detention. As a consequence they will be counterproductive by undermining community relations and criminalising those who are not involved in terrorism.

We are particularly concerned with three parts of the bill.

Firstly those parts which would create new offences of encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications are extremely broadly drafted. They now include statements that ‘glorify’ acts of terrorism, a term which could include all sorts of views that many might find objectionable but few would consider criminal. These new offences would not require any intention to incite others to commit criminal acts; these would also be covered by the Terrorism Act 2000 and existing common law in any case. We believe that if there is a problem with bringing prosecutions we could better deal with it by ending the self imposed ban on the admissibility of intercept evidence rather than new legislation of this type.

Liberty has real concerns with those parts of the Bill that would allow for three month detentions without charge. We believe this will have a severe impact on community relations; it is the equivalent of a six month custodial sentence. Imagine how people will feel returning to their communities after this time having faced no charge. It is over twenty times the pre-charge detention time limit for murder. If the police have genuine difficulties in gathering evidence we should look for more proportionate ways of dealing with the problem. This is defiantly not the way and we do not believe we should engage in some bidding auction where people suggest how far the time allowed prior to charge should be raised.

Liberty is also concerned that the extension of the grounds for proscription under the Terrorism Act 2000 will criminalise membership or support of non-violent political parties. Liberty agrees with the Prime Minister that this is in part an ideological struggle, but it is one that can not be won if we ban groups and drive them underground because we find their views objectionable. Criminalisation of opinion should not be tolerated in a modern democracy. These sorts of offences will be counterproductive by making martyrs of those who hold objectionable views.

The current Bill would seek to surrender fundamental rights and freedoms in an effort to sound tough. In reality it will merely add to the creation of a climate where people hesitate about giving information to the authorities because they fear becoming suspects themselves. The flow of information is the lifeblood of the fight against terrorism; these proposals will only turn off the tap.

It is not too late to build a consensus on fighting terrorism which can succeed and which can unite; initiatives such as the ‘Only United Communities Will Defeat Terrorism and Protect Civil Liberties’ show this to be true. The public discussion meeting organised by the Mayor of London to discuss this initiative was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, meeting ever to discuss anti-terror legislation in this country.

The first task for that consensus is to defeat counter-productive measures in the Terrorism Bill 2005.

Shami Chakrabarti is Director of Liberty