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Creating a Climate of Fear

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Report on Public Meeting, 14 March 2008

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Over 250 people attended the "Creating a Climate of Fear: Counter-Terrorism and Punishment without Trial" public meeting hosted by the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities and the Centre for the Study of Terrorism (CFSOT) at the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel, London, on 14 March 2008. The meeting focused on a number of new, dangerous measures the government is seeking to introduce through the current Counter-Terrorism Bill granting more powers to the police and the judiciary to undermine civil liberties and human rights. The meeting was co-sponsored by the London Muslim Centre, Islamic Forum of Europe, Cage Prisoners and the Newham Monitoring Project.

While the media has focused solely on the provision to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days in the Bill, CAMPACC and the CFSOT are leading a campaign to raise awareness about the seven other provisions in this Bill which are equally detrimental to basic rights.

The current media response is similar to that in 2006, when following the 7/7 bombings, the government rushed through a new spate of anti-terror legislation in the Terrorism Act 2006, creating new offences of "thought crimes", such as the encouragement or glorification of terrorism and acts that could be perceived as preparation for a terrorist offence. While the Bill was discussed furiously in Parliament in 2005, before being made law in March 2006, the debate focused on the ludicrous proposal to extend pre-charge detention for terrorism suspects from the then 14 days to 90 days. Following a now rather famous debate in both chambers of Parliament, the House of Commons then voted through an extension to pre-charge detention to the current 28 days, the longest in any western country. The other provisions in the Bill, particularly those relating to thought crimes, were passed through without much deliberation or publicity. So far they have resulted in several convictions whereas no one suspected of terrorism has been held for 28 days without charge.

Apart from longer pre-charge detention, measures the current bill seeks to introduce are post-charge questioning, aggravated sentences for offences with a "terrorist" connection and confiscation of property (bank accounts, vehicles, homes, etc.) without trial; charity funding could also be confiscated under this measure. Charities are furthermore affected by a new offence making it illegal for volunteers to not give information to the police about suspected terrorist activity at their place of work. Anti-military and anti-war activists will also be affected by a provision making it an offence to seek or communicate information about the armed forces which could be useful to terrorism, such as peace protestors informing each other about activities taking place outside a military base.

The meeting was chaired by Hugo Charlton, a barrister from CAMPACC, who emphasised that the British people have a long history of resisting unjust laws, like many others. The meeting started with a welcome and introduction on behalf of the London Muslim Centre and the Islamic Forum of Europe by Muhammad Habibur-Rahman. He described current anti-terrorism measures as being a "disproportionate mechanism" used against the Muslim community.

The first speaker was prominent human rights lawyer, Gareth Peirce, who since the 1970s has represented dozens of "terrorist suspects", the IRA in the earlier decades and more recently, Muslim and ethnic minority "terrorists", such as Tamils and Punjabis. Ms. Peirce described the Counter-Terrorism Bill as a "step towards a totalitarian state". She stated that there are minimum standards that must be met by the law - laws must be sufficiently clear as to be understood and interpreted ordinarily, however there is no set definition of terrorism either domestically or internationally; the Bill still uses the definition provided in the Terrorism Act 2000. Nonetheless, there are many people being held in UK jails for "terrorist"-related offences. They have no idea as to why they are being held or the specific nature of their charge or conviction. In many cases, "terrorists" hail from countries, such as Algeria, Jordan and Libya, which have poor human rights records to say the least, but which have become "allies" of the UK and US under the "war on terror". It is thus now convenient, to meet our economic and political aims, to deem individuals who oppose such regimes once held to be rogue nations, as in the case of Libya, to be "terrorists". Suspects, who have not been formally convicted of any wrongdoing, are forced to "pay the price in perpetuity" for what Ms. Peirce described as ambitious, greedy and destructive anti-terror laws.

Ms. Peirce mentioned the recent European Court of Human Rights landmark ruling in the case of Saadi v Italy, in which the Court ruled against returning a Tunisian "terror suspect" to his country of origin where he would almost certainly face torture for being a "terror suspect" elsewhere. The UK intervened in this case in 2007 to try to persuade the Court to return him to Tunisia, in spite of this being a clear breach of Article 3 - prohibition of torture - of the European Convention on Human Rights. She urged the public to look carefully at the proposed legislation and to see what exactly it is calling for.

Mahan Abedin, from the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and the editor of Islamism Digest spoke about the connection between the Counter-Terrorism Bill and the wider spirit of the "war on terror". He mentioned two recent cases - that of Cerie Bullivant, a 25 year old British convert to Islam from east London, who had been subject to a control order until very recently when it was overturned by a High Court judge. Mr Bullivant states that the control order has had a psychological and traumatic impact on his life. The restrictions imposed on him were due to the Home Secretary's suspicions that he was involved in terrorism, based purely on MI5 conjecture. The other case raised by Mr. Abedin was that of a Yemeni victim of extraordinary rendition, kidnapped in Iraq and subjected to torture in Iraq and Afghanistan before being incarcerated without charge or trial in Yemen as revealed in an Amnesty International report published on the same day. He was also held in secret CIA jails in Eastern Europe for 28 months, in either Poland or Romania. Mr. Abedin concluded that current anti-terror practices are misguided and do not inspire confidence from the Muslim community that they clearly target.

Les Levidow, speaking on behalf of CAMPACC, argued that the ordinary criminal law is adequate to protect the public against threats of violence, but inadequate for the political aims of recent governments: to protect state terrorism from challenge. He compared the current situation for vulnerable minority communities susceptible to be punished under these laws to the Irish who were treated as a ‘suspect community' until recently. He stated that many asylum seekers who come to the UK have protested against the terrorism of foreign states. While they have fled this situation in their native countries, it has now followed them to the UK, which is trying to silence these dissident voices. It is these very anti-terrorism laws that create a climate of fear, applying a broad definition of terrorism that blurs the distinction between a suspect and a terrorist.

He then discussed how the British public can undermine this climate of fear: people should hold their MPs to account by writing to them to ask them how they are going to vote on this issue and why; they should also try to visit them at their surgeries to discuss these issues and public sentiment on them. The public should also defy the stigma of terrorism by associating with "terrorist suspects", visiting their families to show them support and assistance, writing to prisoners and protesting outside SIAC hearings. He mentioned as a good resource to get information on how to get involved.

Journalist, playwright and author Victoria Brittain spoke about her experience with the families of "terror suspects". She spoke about the strength and resilience of the wives and children of men who are held in Belmarsh, Long Lartin and elsewhere on terrorism charges. In order to meet prisoners held under control orders, one has to be vetted through a lengthy process by the Home Office, although it is still possible to meet their other family members elsewhere. She spoke of the injustice meted out to these individuals and their families due to the cruel conditions and arbitrary nature of their detention. She reported that one detainee held at Long Lartin has never told his family in Algeria that he was in prison in the UK as the strain of it would be too much for them to bear. While these prisoners and their families are doing their best to cope with a difficult, precarious situation, it is important for us to work against attempts to dehumanise these people.

Ben Hayes, Director of the Statewatch European Monitoring and Documentation Centre on Justice and Home Affairs in the EU (SEMDOC) and editor of the Statewatch European Monitor, spoke about "terror" lists and proscription (a ban on the activity and membership of a particular organisation by the state). Lists of proscribed "terrorist" organisations have quietly been introduced in all EU states. There are currently 42 proscribed organisations in the UK, 54 individuals and 50 groups proscribed on the EU-wide "terror" list and 361 individuals and 125 groups on the UN's list; nearly all of these organisations are involved in struggles for self-determination. Mr. Hayes urged the public to show solidarity with victims who have been criminalised by state oppression. He stated that current anti-terror laws are about counterinsurgency and not counterterrorism. We are living in a new era where people are criminalised for their ideological beliefs with offences such as "possessing materials useful for terrorism" and "the glorification of terrorism".

Saghir Hussein from Cage Prisoners, a human rights barrister stated that the situation in the UK is directly related to the "war on terror" and furthermore that Britain has "arguably the most draconian anti-terrorist legislation in the world". He argued that activists need to change their tactics and that the "gloves need to come off with the legislature and the judiciary" as Britain was heading towards a clear apartheid situation as concerns the Muslim community, dividing the community itself between so-called "moderate" and "extremist" Muslims.

Dr. Kamal El-Helbawy from the CFSOT congratulated the organisers for bringing together the many speakers and participants at this meeting. He also called for closure of Guantánamo Bay and all US-run secret prisons around the world. "We don't need more Guantánamo Bays" said Dr. Helbawy. Local east London activist Asad Rehman, from the Newham Monitoring Project, spoke about east London's long history of resistance to government moves to divide and alienate communities living there. Azad Ali from the Muslim Safety Forum, which works with the Metropolitan Police on such issues, stated that current government policy singles out the Muslim community, causing friction between minority communities and isolating British Muslims. However, these proposals do not only affect Muslims and should not be seen as targeting them alone.

From the floor, questions were asked about detention without trial, the effects of more anti-terror laws on multiculturalism in Britain, what activists could do, the role of the media and attempts to silence the protest voice of the Muslim community.

Les Levidow summed up the meeting by stating that while these laws are applied broadly, this provides a scope for broader alliances to be forged between activists and communities. The various terrorism acts introduced since 2000 have recently been used against anti-war protesters at the DSEi arms fair and at the Climate Camp. The issue should be viewed as antiracist and pro-democracy to create a broader alliance between different activists and communities.