It sounds like an exam question for political undergraduates or the surreal scenario for a science fiction film. But it is a serious query being asked by many Britons after the government published proposals last week for new anti-terror legislation.
In the wake of the 7 July London bombings that left 56 people dead and scores wounded, the government has stepped up its tough line against those it regards as threats to national security.
The bill includes proposals for holding terrorism suspects without charge for up to three months, criminalising the “glorification” of terrorism and threatening to jail those who disseminate terrorist literature.
It also enhances the powers of Britain’s home secretary (interior minister) to ban groups who praise “terrorist acts” and makes it easier to deport undesirable individuals for national security reasons.
Of all the measures, extending the detention of terrorism suspects without charge has provoked the most criticism, with many likening it to the controversial “internment” policy that led to the mass arrests of suspected Irish nationalists in the 1970s.
Prime Minister Tony Blair told members of parliament last week the argument in favour of the extension was “absolutely compelling”. And the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has welcomed the proposals in general, saying “extraordinary times” called for “extraordinary measures”.
Police leaders argue they need
“We consider it vital that the reasons for the extended powers and the very demanding independent judicial oversight set out in the bill are explained clearly,” an ACPO spokesperson told Aljazeera.net. “The powers will be used sparingly, only when absolutely necessary and subject to the vigorous judicial oversight.”
However, the opposition Conservatives, who traditionally take a tough line on policing and security matters, have expressed reservations – as have many of Blair’s fellow Labour party members. The rightwing press has joined its liberal-left colleagues in decrying the proposals.
Civil liberties groups have echoed Muslim representatives in warning of potential harm to community relations. And while various figures accuse the government of attacking the right of free speech, many invoke the name of the former ANC leader.
“Any new laws must pass the Mandela test. Under the government’s proposals, Nelson Mandela would have been banned and anyone supporting him would be criminalised,” warned London’s popular leftwing mayor, Ken Livingstone.
A study by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), comparing the proposals with laws in other major Western countries, was published alongside the bill on 12 October. It was commissioned to show that the British proposals were comparatively moderate – but has ended up highlighting the opposite.
The FCO study found, for example, that in countries such as Australia, Canada, France and Spain, police cannot hold suspects without charge anywhere near the 14 days the British police are already allowed – a difference that the anti-terrorism bill will widen.
Britain and Libya have signed an
However, the Home Office told Aljazeera.net such unrivalled powers of detention were necessary to tackle “increasingly complex and international terrorist organisations, who make ever greater use of new technology such as encrypted computers”.
“As the nature of terrorism changes, we must respond,” said a Home Office spokeswoman, who asked not to be named. “It is important to recognise that the period proposed is a maximum and that it will be subject to regular independent judicial review by a district judge every seven days.”
The FCO report similarly shows that Blair’s proposal to deport terrorism suspects more easily – including to countries where torture routinely occurs – as well as the plan to deny asylum to applicants linked to terrorism in any way, are unusually severe compared with most other Western countries.
With Islamic activism now virtually a synonym for terrorism for many in the West, community leaders and human rights groups fear Muslims will suffer unfairly under the proposed laws.
Key aspects of the bill
Detention without charge up to three months
Circulating terrorist publications
Training for terrorism
Banning extremist groups
“The proposal to increase the length of detention without charge to three months and criminalising support for liberation movements represents a fundamental incursion into our civil liberties,” says Abdurahman Jafar, secretary of the legal affairs committee of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).
Jafar recalls the Northern Irish community’s experience of internment, when thousands of suspects were rounded up and interrogated – often brutally.
“Then it was 14 days; now it will mean three months. That’s the equivalent of serving a six-month prison sentence,” Jafar told Aljazeera.net. “And when you look at all those hundreds who have been wrongfully arrested in the current situation, they all belong to the same community: Muslims.”
But police chiefs insist they can maintain good relations with such communities if the proposed law and how it would be implemented is properly understood.
“One of the lessons of 7/7/05 was that the victims were representative of the diversity of London. No community was spared and we must fight together to defeat terrorism,” said APCO’s spokesperson, who asked not to be named.
Critics also charge that the proposed offences of “glorifying” terrorism and disseminating literature that praises acts deemed terrorist effectively target ordinary Muslims – because armed struggles in places such as occupied Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir enjoy such widespread support in their community.
“By conflating legitimate acts of resistance with illegitimate acts of terrorism against peaceful democracies, the new bill threatens to further undermine the already waning moral legitimacy of the ‘war on terror’,” says Jafar.
Muslims show support for the
Because the original proposal criminalising the glorification of terrorism was condemned for being too vague, the Home Office has added a clarification. It now says that an offence will be committed only when someone praises terrorist attacks knowing that their words will encourage others to participate in terrorism.
“It is important to stress that this legislation is not targeted at the Muslim community,” the Home Office spokeswoman said.
“It is intended to catch anyone who encourages or glorifies terrorism. The government continues to work closely with faith communities and we welcome the support of faith and community leaders, with whom we are working in partnership to tackle extremism and radicalisation.”
The proposed laws have sent ripples through the judiciary, with several lawyers and senior judges questioning the government’s approach. Even the senior lawyer appointed by the government to review its proposals, Lord Carlile, has called for greater judicial oversight of any prolonged detention.
Although broadly supportive, Lord Carlile has also questioned whether “it is the role in our law, or even enforceable, to make it a criminal offence triable in our country to fight in a revolution the aims of which we support. The example of the ANC before the release of Nelson Mandela almost automatically springs to mind.”
“It is important to stress that this legislation is not targeted at the Muslim community”
Home Office spokeswoman
Other legal experts argue that many of the measures will fall foul of British and European human rights law.
“There are likely to be challenges under Article 3 (the right not to be subjected to torture – in respect of deportation proposals), Article 10 (freedom of expression – in respect of banning and closing down mosques, bookshops etc) and Article 5 (the right to liberty – in respect of detention without charge),” says Louise Christian, a leading human rights lawyer who has represented British detainees held without charge at the US military base in Guantanamo.
The government has already found itself battling the judiciary over its anti-terror policy after a panel of law lords (Britain’s most senior judges) ruled last December that its indefinite detention of foreign terrorism suspects at two high security prisons was unlawful under the European convention on human rights (ECHR).
In a case being watched around the world, seven law lords are now considering an appeal by 10 foreign nationals who were in indefinite detention until last December’s ruling. Their appeal challenges a July 2002 decision that evidence possibly extracted under torture outside the UK was admissible in a British court.
More courtroom battles loom over the issue of torture. Since British and European law effectively prohibits the deportation of people to countries where torture occurs routinely, the UK government has sought promises from foreign governments not to torture deportees.
Such promises, says Christian, are “clearly worth nothing”. The MCB’s Jafar echoes that view, adding that the government’s determination to press ahead with such deportations “doesn’t say much about our commitment to human rights”.
Nonetheless, in a move that human rights group Amnesty International described as “dangerously misguided”, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the UK and Libya, ruling out torture or execution of specified deportees, was signed last Tuesday – even though the FCO website continues to publicise its human rights concerns about the country.
“MOUs signed with other foreign governments will enable us to demonstrate to the courts that the deportations of individuals’ to whom they apply is entirely consistent with our international obligations, and so allow those deportations to proceed,” the Home Office spokeswoman said.