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Not wanted: 'undesirable' citizens treated as criminals

Passport removal becomes the newest measure in the British Home Secretary's ever-expanding arsenal.

Last Modified: 08 Oct 2013 13:57
Asim Qureshi

Asim Qureshi has a legal background specialising in International and Islamic Law. He is currently employed as the Research Director at Cageprisoners where he has led investigations across the world.
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UK Home Secretary Theresa May, unable to prove any of the terror allegations against radical Islamist Abu Qatada, tried to deport him for being 'undesirable' [Reuters]

In the early part of 2013, Theresa May announced that new rules under the royal prerogative would permit the Home Office wider powers to remove the passports of those considered "demonstrably undesirable". On September 13, the first recorded incident of passport removal was brought to the attention of CagePrisoners. According to the letter sent to the individual, the HM Passport Office explains:

"The letter is to inform you that the [above] passport is cancelled and you are no longer permitted to use this document to travel to and from the United Kingdom. There is no entitlement to a passport. The decision to issue, withdraw or refuse to issue a British passport is a matter for the Secretary of State for the Home Department."

The individual was not provided with any specific information of criminal activity that would warrant the revocation of the passport. Instead, the letter outlined:

"The Home Secretary considers that it is not in the public interest that you should hold a passport. You are not considered a person whose past, present or proposed activities are so undesirable that the grant or continued enjoyment of passport facilities is believed to be contrary to the interest."

In the wake of this new form of civil sanction, what does all this mean?

These policies come in the wake of fears by the UK security establishment that British citizens and residents are travelling to countries such as Syria to train and potentially become a threat to the British public on their return.

While the government argues the need for such laws, it is worth reflecting on the current state of policies that exist in order to deter potential "undesirables".

The very feature of current UK counter-terrorism policy in the civil law system, is that it applies to those who are considered to be "undesirable" rather than those who have committed a criminal act. The British public should be wary of such centralisation of arbitrary orders, as such policies will eventually end up affecting those they never originally intended.

Denying re-entry

For those who wish to leave the country, providing they have some form of dual-nationality or tie to a foreign country, the Home Secretary has the ability to arbitrarily remove their citizenship, thus enabling it to deny them re-entry into the UK. The case of Mahdi Hashi highlights the way in which a British citizen suspected of extremism had his British citizenship removed without any due process considerations. An investigation conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for The Independent provided a damning insight into the extent to which this power is used, all within the secret evidence apparatus of the security agencies.

The Home Secretary further has the power to inhibit the activities of individuals by subjecting them to a TPIM (Terrorism Prevention Investigation Measures) that followed the pledge by the Liberal Democrats in 2010 to scrap the previous system of control orders. Yet when the coalition government brought TPIMs into force in December 2011, it was clear that this new regime did little to restore civil liberties. As has been documented widely by CagePrisoners and many other human rights organisations, TPIMs are simply control orders rebranded.

Similarly to the cases of citizenship removal, the Home Secretary is permitted to make an arbitrary decision on the application of this order based on closed or secret evidence provided by the security agencies. The measures permit May to restrict the movements of individuals and keep them under strict forms of surveillance. Such restrictions can be particularly inhibiting as described by one TPIM subject:

"Physiologically drained, financially crippled and emotionally depressed, in short. One's entire life is consumed by this monstrous and inhumane regime, life virtually evolves around the set of obligations. Every aspect of life is radically controlled by the Order. Every decision made in life must consider and accommodate the Order. Whether you’re planning to marry and start a family, begin a career. Every minute detail in life is adversely affected. You’re frozen in time, you have to put things back, decide against taking steps in life. The security services have been successful in engineering a system which effectively renders a controlee a living ghost. Consider the mental impact of being on an indefinite control order - in a complete sense of limbo - even convicted terrorists are afforded the privilege of knowing when their sentence will end! I wouldn't even like to imagine the possible long term effects of this oppressive Order."

Unintended consequences

The TPIMs can be applied to UK nationals, residents and even foreign nationals who are considered to be "extremists" or "not conducive to the public good". There is however one further mechanism that can be used by the Home Secretary in order to arbitrarily impact on undesirables, and that is through the use of deportation orders. As was seen with the case of Abu Qatada, the Home Secretary had been pushing for him to be removed from the UK for reasons of him being ‘undesirable’ to UK interests, but yet never brought a case to prove any of the allegations against him.

The current arsenal of counter-terrorism policies and legislation that are possessed by May go well beyond the three civil law orders that she can arbitrarily apply. The prospect that further legislation or policies are needed in order to restrict the movements of those living in the UK is absurd, particularly when the vague wording of the policies are considered. The very feature of current UK counter-terrorism policy in the civil law system, is that it applies to those who are considered to be "undesirable" rather than those who have committed a criminal act. The British public should be wary of such centralisation of arbitrary orders, as such policies will eventually end up affecting those they never originally intended.

Asim Qureshi has a legal background specialising in International and Islamic Law. He is currently employed as the Research Director at Cageprisoners where he has led investigations across the world. With his team of researchers, he has written and published reports exposing the use of unlawful detention, rendition, and torture in the ‘war on terror’. 

Follow Asim Qureshi on Twitter: @CagePrisoners

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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