UK Liberty

Terror laws killing off British justice

Posted in law and order by ukliberty on April 28, 2008

Simon Jenkins in the Times:

Slowly, oh so slowly, Britain’s judges are rescuing Britain’s values from the depths to which Tony Blair and his home secretaries plunged them in the knee-jerk response to terrorism. The acts passed by Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke from 2000 onwards did not create a British Guantanamo Bay, but they did signal a shocking collapse in British justice. The present home secretary, Jacqui Smith, wants to further that collapse.

Last week the Court of Appeal handed down two trenchant verdicts in an attempt to inject common sense into nonsensical terror laws.

Every prediction that Britain’s burgeoning terrorism laws would pollute justice is vindicated by these cases. The concept of preemptive imprisonment, like that of preemptive war, should have no place in an open society.

The authorities now have extraordinary powers to arrest and convict Britons on evidence that may be tainted by American interrogation techniques or by the sheer ignorance of the police and security services.

It is to this secret establishment that Smith wants to give discretionary power to incarcerate suspects without charge for an undecided number of months. It is this establishment that is still determined not to reveal the extent of its wiretap activities in court. It is this that has equipped Britain with the most extensive network of surveillance in the free world. It is this that intends to computerise the personal, occupational, medical and family records of the entire nation, on bases that everyone knows will be insecure.

The customary response is that this drift towards authoritarianism, coupled with an extension of state discretion, is necessary in the so-called “post 9/11 world”. I do not buy this. The threat from fascism and communism in the 20th century was real. It was war, hot and cold. These ideologies could have defeated Britain militarily and the threat justified nuclear defence and some curb on civil liberty.

No serious person can imagine a Britain conquered and ruled by fundamentalist Islam. It is pure fiction. Any fanatic can set off bombs, as once could the Irish. The cult of the suicide bomber enhances the menace of explosive devices and that requires more assiduous policing. But such few bombs as get through are the price we pay for a free society. Democracy is never a free lunch.

The claim of ministers that militant Islamism constitutes “a threat to British values”, let alone to western civilisation, is defeatist nonsense. The threat to British values at present comes not from militant Islam but from a hysterical public reaction to it. Elevating a criminal act into a military and political threat is stupid because counter-productive.

Answering “extremist intoxication” with extremist repression pours petrol on the flames. The rash of antiterror legislation over the past seven years has been a panic measure that has led to injustice and fury on the part of far too many of its victims and their communities. It has been bad law.

I have no problem in getting tough with terrorist conspirators or blatant trouble-makers, as in refusing entry to undesirable foreign mullahs. I have no problem in kicking out those who abuse Britain’s ever-generous hospitality. Nor am I too worried about their fate in being returned to their country of origin.

But none of this justifies collapsing the values of justice and fairness on which British law has long been based. The paradox, espoused by the present government and mostly unchallenged by the opposition, that defending values requires infringing them, is unjustified [“We had to burn the village to save it”]. That habeas corpus must be restricted, that mens rea must be suspended, that reading and talking and thinking can be crimes, all are ideas so abhorrent to British people that one might imagine them the product of an Al-Qaeda plot inside the Home Office.

This week the only conclusion I can reach is one I would never have predicted. Thank goodness for judges with the guts to save British values from the present crop of British politicians.

And great comment from a reader:

The big lie from Blair was that terrorism would not be allowed to change the British way of life.

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