CAMPACC statement to Law Lords 2004

The end of internment? The Law Lords' ruling on indefinite detention

CAMPACC statement, 23 December 2004

Also see the Law Lords judgement

‘The real threat to the life of the nation... comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.'
‘It calls into question the very existence of an ancient liberty of which this country has, until now, been very proud - freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention'
Law Lord Hoffman, 16 December 2004
‘If the Home Office does not either charge or release the detainees, a most serious constitutional crisis must result from the precedent of defiance thus created.'
Prof. John Rear, University of Northumnbria

CAMPACC welcomes the Law Lords' decision on ‘anti-terror' detention without trial. We feel vindicated by their ruling that internment is unacceptable and that the law permitting it must be changed.

This political and legal victory for justice resulted from a growing, persisent three-year campaign. Put in historical perspective, this campaign extends the long-standing struggle to gain and retain basic democratic rights, which have been periodically under threat from the state. The current campaign has featured close cooperation between CAMPACC, Liberty, Haldane Society, Institute of Race Relations, Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF), Voices, Peace and Justice in East London and other human rights groups, NGOs, religious-based groups, lawyers including Gareth Peirce and Louise Christian, the Green Party, individual MPs and Lords, Stop the War Coalition, Respect and other Left groups as well as migrant and Muslim community groups, especially Stop Political Terror and The Muslim Parliament.

No ‘emergency'
It is a rare reward of successful political work to see the highest judges in the land, plus many journalists, echoing arguments which campaigners have made for years. In particular, Lord Hoffman stated that there is no ‘state of public emergency' - i.e., no sufficient rationale to justify the UK opt-out from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees the right of habeas corpus. Moreover, he stated, ‘The real threat to the life of the nation... comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.'

The Law Lords considered that the government's response went further than necessary and was ‘a disproportionate interference with liberty and equality'. They argued that internment is unacceptable on principle, not because of their assessment of the government's argument that the present detainees are ‘dangerous'. In any case, the allegations against several detainees relate to their contacts with Algeria or Chechnya, rather than any threat of violence in Britain (The Observer, 19.12.04). All these developments weaken the government's arguments for internment powers under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) 2001.

Extra threats to justice
Despite the firm judgement of the Law Lords, there is not yet a substantive victory for the rule of law against internment, for several reasons:-
* The new Home Secretary has stated that the detainees will remain in jail until Parliament decides to end the internment powers. Constitutionally, the government is not required to implement the Law Lords' judgement.
* If detainees are tried, there are still concerns about what trial procedure and rules may be used. Will they have a jury trial or will the government invent a form of non-jury trial ? (as suggested in the Newton Report). Will normal standards of proof be applied, or will lower standards be accepted? (as mooted earlier by Blunkett). Will courts accept evidence which has been, or may have been, obtained under torture? (as the Appeal Court decided was admissible in August 2004).
* If the law is modified to authorise electronic tagging or house arrest for suspected ‘terrorists', then it could be regarded as a less drastic measure and thus be more extensively used than internment without trial.
* Both the Law Lords and the Appeal Court have emphasised that the present detention powers discriminate against foreigners. The government may seek a more modest power in the hope that Parliament will accept its extension to British citizens (as proposed by the Newton Report).

For all human rights campaigners, the challenge over the next few months will be to press for a complete U-turn from the authoritarian, police state tendencies shown by New Labour over the past five years. First and foremost we want Parliament to refuse renewal of the internment powers in March, and to reject any compromise which threatens civil liberties whilst perhaps paying lip service to the Law Lords' ruling.

As we said a long time ago, ‘A task of crime prevention has been turned into a fake emergency' (CAMPACC leaflet, February 2003, The ‘War on Terror' at Home: we are all targets of the state). Nevertheless the government has made claims for an emergency to justify its opt-out from the ECHR. Moreover, it has irresponsibly sought votes in this way, thus fueling racism, Islamophobia and unjustified fears.

The present internment powers will remain in force unless Parliament changes or abolishes the law. Whatever police state powers are available now, or are passed in future, may be used much more extensively by some future government.

Other ‘anti-terror' powers
Even if internment powers are not renewed by Parliament in March, the overall ‘anti-terror' framework will still remain. The Terrorism Act 2000 more broadly redefined ‘terrorism' to encompass a wide range of ordinary political activities; the redefinition blurs any distinction between organized violence against civilians and anti-government protest. On that basis, the Terrorism Act 2000 established a new crime of ‘association' with banned organisations, and the list could be easily extended in future.

The ATCSA 2001 introduced many extra powers including internment. The draconian powers of stop-and-search have been used extensively and arbitrarily, though disproportionately against Asians and including (ironically) against peace protesters, by labelling them as ‘terrorist suspects'. More recently, the 2003 US-EU Extradition Treaty facilitates the outsourcing of internment or unfair trials to other governments, by using the pretext of ‘terrorist' threats. Currently Babar Ahmad, a British citizen, is threatened with extradiction to the USA. If the Civil Contingencies Bill becomes law, the government will have additional powers to detain people, prevent their movement and confiscate property in a declared ‘emergency'. If any current ‘anti-terror' powers are modified or repealed, then such a new law could be used to similar effect.

To the Law Lords' arguments we can add further points about the use of the current anti-terrorist powers in general.
* The ensemble of special powers have been used to terrorise Muslim and migrant communities, especially in the climate of Islamophobia which has followed the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks.
* These powers are specially targeted at people or organisations associated with resistance against oppressive regimes which are supported by the UK government. Such resistance is labelled ‘terrorism', while state terrorism generally is not. Racist persecution here complements political repression abroad. Thus these powers evade the real need for a just and democratic society, with a foreign policy to match.
* To the extent that there may be a violent threat to the public here, the best defence would be to overcome global injustice. On this rationale, Gordon Brown has advocated measures to remedy global poverty (Guardian, 18.12.04). More immediately, the UK government generates hatred by its role in the occupation and plunder of Iraq, as well as its support for Israel. A just peace in both Iraq and Palestine, with respect for migrant and Muslim communities in Britain, would contribute to our security - unlike police state powers, which threaten our security.

Future campaigns
Encouraged by the Law Lords' ruling, CAMPACC will intensify its efforts to defeat the anti-terror laws and to deter their use. We have already planned the following activities:
* Support the meeting organised by Liberty "Guantanamo is Closer than You Think: Internment without trial after the Law Lords Ruling: 11th January, 6-8pm at the LSC, Hong Kong Theater, WC2 Speakers Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty and Gareth Peirce e-mail:
* To repeal internment powers and demand the release of all detainees: a protest at 6-8pm on Thursday 20th January opposite 10 Downing Street
* To oppose all the anti-terror powers: a lobby of MPs in their local constituencies on 11-12th March. (See CAMPACC website for details in January.)
* Urge supporters and friends to write to their MPs and call on them to sign the Early Day Motion (EDM 426) proposed by Kevin McNamara MP

Release all detainees now!
Repeal the internment powers!
Repeal the anti-terrorism laws!

Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC)