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Terror suspects: let judges decide

Dr Eamonn Butler writes on the Adam Smith Institute Blog:

Soon after 9/11, Britain introduced draconian anti-terrorist legislation that included the power to imprison suspected terrorists without trial. It required an abrogation of human rights laws, and was a denial of habeas corpus: but the argument was that in some cases, producing evidence in a trial might expose secret sources or prejudice the lives and safety of the security services and their informers.

Not surprisingly, the High Court objected. So last week, Britain’s Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, replied that instead of detaining suspects in prison, he would keep them under house arrest, bar them using the internet and mobile phones, and so on.

Home Office ministers said we shouldn’t worry about this, because nice Mr Clarke would keep all such detentions under constant review. And because it only applies to international terrorists. But then other ministers said it might apply to animal rights campaigners too, since they were pretty dangerous characters. Err…where is this going to end?

Sure, a liberal order must protect itself from those who would destroy liberalism itself. And maybe, at times, you have to act illiberally to do that. But you should still act according to the rule of law. If there is evidence, it should be produced in court. If the evidence is too sensitive to be made public, then it should be heard in private before qualified judges. At the moment we are jailing people, and soon we will be imprisoning them in their homes, on the say-so of a politician. That is scary.

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4 comments to Terror suspects: let judges decide

  • Well said. The seemingly complete lack of protocol of the US and British governments in implementing these detainments is truly appalling. Thank you for your blog.

    Don’t wait for permission to succeed!
    Troy Worman, OrbitNow!

  • I have a theory. It goes like this. Each time the government attacks civil liberties without receiving a significant penalty for doing so, it paves the way for further attack. It does so because it demonstrates that they haven’t gone as far as the population will let them in acquiring arbitrary power and restricting liberties.

    Thus those who believe that the government needs more power (for any purpose) are encouraged to press that case further, and those who want such power for their own, possibly malevolent, purposes are also so encouraged and are given opportunities to obtain power for themselves.

    These proposals are the latest in a long line of attacks on civil liberties that both predate 9/11 and have been enacted in legislation across many policy areas — i.e. not just anti-terrorism.

    Many such measures have been greeted with some howls from Liberty and other such groups, but indifference or even praise from the public and some parts of the media. Thus encouraging more attacks.

    This process is making Britain vulnerable to tyranny. Our current government may not intend it, and may not intend to institute tyranny. But for how much longer will that hold once the state can lock anyone it chooses up in their own homes (and subject their families/friends to searches, internet/phone bans, curfews, etc), without trial and keeping evidence secret?

    I fear the consequences of this proposal making it to the statute books.

    I’ve commented further on the matter here, as well as rounding up some other commentary.

  • David Barnsdale

    The elections show that democracy is far more than a foreign import and has become something authentically Iraqi. It also shows the strength of the threats it still faces.

    I’ve been listening to Clarke this morning (9th) claiming that people who don’t accept the need for these proposals don’t understand the threat from terrorism. This is totally untrue. First lets repeat the point that when who detain without trial a suspected and to that extent known terrorist you create ten unknown ones. I hear that so often it’s almost a cliche.

    But for crying out loud, terrorism isn’t an enemy. Terrorism is just a tactic. The enemy ( And I for one believe that it is real) is a movement of religious totalitarianism. It is an ideology that has declared war on democratic values. Fighting a war for democracy in Iraq and tearing up the basis of democracy at home isn’t merely hypocritical – it’s suicidal.

    One of the thing is striking is the way the conservatives have taken a stand against this. Howard, who normally sounds real slimy, is sounding really sincere. I suspect it is because this time Howard is well aware that he won’t gain but he knows there are some things you just don’t do. Indeed that ‘s what I suspect is behind all this. New Labor wants the law and order vote. To do this they have to do something so outrageous that even the Tories have to oppose them. Hence the Tories are pushed into painting themselves as wishy washy liberals.

  • fdm

    I agree somewhat with James Hammertons’ theory above, certainly if any of the measures provoked public outcry the government would have to back down.

    I think a lot of the problem stems from a belief that the state can and therefore should solve all problems. Whilst I think this is simply wrong, as some problems cannot have full solution in a practical sense, and even for those that can the state is not the best implementor anyway.

    To return to the issue, I can imagine a senior government minister asking a senior police officer how terrosits can be stopped? I think in reality you cannot guarantee to stop them all, but that flies against the goverment thinking so the police officer cannot say that. Instead they come up with an idea that i) requires legislation (puts the onus onto the government) and ii) is ridiculous/impossible, the senior police officer is now off the hook. Unfortunately the goverment minister takes it all at face value, doesn’t look at the measure empirically to study its effect on the problem; nor will they accept or consider the view that there is nothing much (apart from costly increased security) that a “free state” can do; they have a problem, a solution, and something to do (legislate). With the bit between their teeth they gallop at full speed towards the goal.

    The senior police officer (depending I assume on the individual) is either: horrified that the ridiculous/impossible proposal they only used to have something to say is now government policy, but of course can do nothing; or delighted at the prospect of new powers.