Controversy exploded in Britain earlier this month when Home Secretary David Blunkett proposed trying UK citizens accused under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001 in secret courts. Speaking in India at the site of a 1919 British massacre of more than 1,000 Indians protesting the Rowlatt Act – which gave the British Raj the right to imprison without trial – Blunkett asserted that new “suicide terrorism” means traditional deterrents no longer work.
There has never been an act of “suicide terrorism” in Great Britain.
The Anti-terrorism Act is considered the strictest in Europe and has been heavily criticized by human rights organizations. One of its provisions loosens the standard of proof from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “the balance of probabilities.”
Like the Patriot Act, it was proposed immediately after September 11 and curtailed civil rights in ways unthinkable beforehand. The Anti-terrorism Act automatically expires in 2006, but Blunkett is seeking an early renewal.
Of 7,000 people detained under terror laws in Britain since, only a small fraction were charged with terror-related crimes and the overwhelming majority were released without charges. Nonetheless, a final appeals court recently upheld the Home Secretary’s right under the Act to hold 14 unidentified foreigners, whom he may deem to merely have terrorist “links,” indefinitely without trial. As it applied only to foreign nationals, the decision caused little controversy.
Now Blunkett’s threat to loosen the rules to catch homegrown “terrorists” has prompted Labor peer Helena Kennedy to describe him as a “shameless authoritarian,” and call his ideas “an affront to the rule of law.” Meanwhile, Conservative Party Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said Blunkett’s proposals were unnecessary and immoral.
Current Law Limits Political Groups
The Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001 restrict both freedom of association and of speech, while compelling all citizens to become government informers. The reach is deliberately broad and the penalties harsh.
The Act defines terrorism as anything involving damage or violence intended to influence any government or intimidate its population (foreign as well as UK) on behalf of a political, religious or ideological cause –broad language that was intended to include animal rights protesters as well as al-Qaeda. Any anti-globalization group promoting direct action at a WTO meeting, for example, meets this definition of “terrorist.”
Groups involved in such activities can be “proscribed,” meaning that membership in or support of a group the Home Secretary outlaws is punishable by 10 years in prison –even if you are unaware of the group’s status. The proscription itself can be appealed only to a court which does not have to reveal evidence or provide an explanation of its ruling, and can change its rules of procedure from case to case. Currently, a dozen or so groups such as al-Qaeda and the Basque ETA are proscribed.
Both organizing any meeting (three or more people in public or private) where a proscribed group member speaks, or wearing clothing associated with the group, are considered “support” of the group, which will earn the offender 10 years in prison.
Encouraging a donation to a proscribed group – 14 years. Owning any item of use to a terrorist organization – or just frequenting the premises where an item is stored – 10 years. Collecting information for the organization – 10 years. Managing any aspect of its operations (possibly just updating the mailing list) – life imprisonment.
Now, inciting violence overseas gets you the same sentence as actually committing an act of violence in Great Britain. This means that talking about a deed is punishable to the same degree as actually doing it. Oppressive foreign regimes can now press for prosecution of refugees on this basis.
If this were not enough, the above crimes the burden of proof is now reversed – the charged individual must prove his innocence.
Under the Act, everyone must report any “information about acts of terrorism in general” – or face five years. Similar rules in Northern Ireland have forced family members to inform and have obstructed the work of investigative journalists.
Constables can arrest you at will just on the suspicion of “general” terrorist involvement; under some circumstances you may be held up to seven days incommunicado without trial. “Emergency” powers (secretly in effect in London for two years) allow the police to stop and search individuals and cars without suspicion. Property deemed terror-related can be seized on the spot.
Another factor that makes these laws all the more frightening is that law enforcement in Great Britain has access to all records on individuals held by banks, schools, doctors, etc., which can be monitored without suspicion of a specific crime. This includes police access to all emails, websites visited and phone records (although maintaining such records is optional for companies).
Another law dramatically expanding the executive’s emergency powers is expected to be passed later this month, partly motivated by the wish to keep Terror Act powers available even if that law is not renewed.
The Civil Contingencies bill grants the government the power to override all preexisting laws as needed, seal off the cities, impose censorship, set up tribunals, destroy property without compensation, ban peaceful protests, ban travel, and shut down the phone system and Internet. It is unclear whether Parliament can override the declaration of emergency.
While the “emergency” is to be an immediate threat to food, water, or power supplies, the Blair administration is signaling it will act on civil unrest which poses an indirect threat. Since the 1920s, such emergency powers have been used in the context of labor disputes.
Tony Bunyan of the civil liberties organization Statewatch, refers to the legislation as “Britain’s Patriot Act.” He warned, “At a stroke democracy could be replaced by totalitarianism…”