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The infamy of secret evidence

Saleh Mamon of the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities exposes how justice is trampled underfoot in the British state’s war on terror. Published in Labour Briefing, June 2009.

Let us begin with Abu Rideh, a Jordanian national of Palestinian descent who arrived in the UK in 1995 and was granted asylum in 1997 on the basis of being a victim of torture whilst imprisoned in Israel. A married man and father, he was grateful to this country for the rights they afforded him until 5.30am on the morning of 19th December 2001 when over 100 officers raided his home, arrested him on ‘terrorist charges’ and his life changed forever.

Flung into Belmarsh prison, locked up 23 hours a day, abused mentally and physically, he has a mental breakdown and ended up in Broadmoor. It was alleged that he raised funds for Al Qaeda and refugees in Chechnya. He appeared before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) in October 2003 where his detention was upheld. In July 2005, he was released without charge but on a strict control order - under home curfew, electronically tagged, restrictions on home visits, use of internet, harassed by frequent police searches. He has three girls and three boys who are all British citizens. His whole family is isolated and collectively punished. In desperation he attempted to take his life to put himself out of his misery.

Does Abu Rideh know why he is subjected to this treatment? The substantive evidence against him is ‘secret’ - he is not allowed to know this so that he can defend himself. He is a threat to ‘national security’.

Is Abu Rideh the only one? No. There are nearly 40 cases under the terrorism laws, most of whom are not named but designated by letters of the alphabet. These are the invisible refugees and asylum seekers, mostly Algerians and a few from other North African countries, who are out of sight of the public discourse. Many of them have been in and out of detention, put under control orders (house arrest), are suffering from psychosomatic illnesses and experiencing utter dehumanisation and isolation. Some have been driven from this unending limbo to return voluntarily to Algeria to risk torture.

All these individuals are accused of belonging to proscribed organisations, the colour of whose politics is no longer approved by the west. So if you are a Kurd, Algerian, Libyan, Jordanian or Palestinian resisting authoritarian regimes, you have no right to be political. Distributing a leaflet, a newspaper, wearing a T-shirt, holding a meeting, raising funds or speaking freely to promote your political platform is forbidden in the war against terror.

This injustice cannot be sustained without institutions. Firstly we have SIAC. The Commission has open sessions but the critical evidence is in closed sessions. Often judgments are given in closed sessions. The appellants are provided with state-appointed special advocates who cannot reveal to their client the nature of the evidence in the closed session. This is a travesty of justice.

Then there are our secret services that provide all the secret evidence to the commission. They remain totally unaccountable for their conduct and performance. Their evidence can never be tested against any facts. Nor can we know if they obtain such evidence from torture through outsourcing.  For example they (secretly) accused two different men of simultaneously using the same false passport to travel abroad in two separate cases. The mistake was only discovered by the coincidence that the special advocate was the same person in both cases.

Behind all this is the British state and its long penchant for secrecy. The torture of Binyam Mohammad and the extradition of unknown numbers with the collusion of the secret services attests to this. The stampede of legislation since 2000 has created a raft of police powers and offences that criminalise the most vulnerable communities in the name of fighting terrorism whilst conducting destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and condoning the occupation of Palestine. Underlying this is the growth of virulent anti-Muslim racism that has manufactured an enemy within. This is all abetted by the media through their sensational reporting which promotes the politics of fear.

What is to be done? We should campaign for a radical review of the counter-terrorism legislation that has criminalised innocent people and eroded civil liberties for all. We should call for the end of the use of secret evidence and demand that all evidence should be tested in court. Write to your MP urging him/her to sign EDM 1308 against secret evidence tabled by Dianne Abbott. We should call upon lawyers to boycott SIAC because it is not a court in the proper sense of the word where evidence can be tested. Finally, we should support organisations that are involved in campaigning against unjust counter terrorism powers.