The Terrorism Bill – civil liberties sacrificed in the interests of imperialism
The Terrorism Bill is on its way through parliament. The government and the police tell us that it is needed to protect the ordinary citizens of Britain from the “terrorists”. They clearly intend that this explanation gives them carte blanche to take whatever action they want. After all, they argue, how can British citizens object to measures designed to protect them from injury or even death? The whole matter is presented in this simple way, and government spokespersons feign disbelief that anyone could raise objections.
The whole matter is, of course, not that simple or straightforward. It is a whole game of deceit and sheer brazen effrontery carried out in the service of imperialism.
The measures contained in the Terrorism Bill will not be effective against those who might decide to set off a bomb or other device in Britain itself. Should the security services actually detect anyone to be doing so, the Bill will not provide them with any more legal provision than is already at their disposal. No, the measures and the hype that goes with them are designed to do two things.
Firstly it is designed to encourage divisions in the working class along ethnic or religious lines. Once law, the measures will certainly be used to terrorise and intimidate parts of the community with family links or religious or cultural affinities with countries where terror is being perpetrated by Britain. It will try to place the ‘blame’ on those communities and set them apart. It will try to get people used to the idea of the knock on the door in the night so long as it is someone else’s door. Does that remind us of anything? The well-known words of Pastor Niemoller spring to mind!
Second, and following on from that, the measures will be used in an attempt to intimidate not only minority communities but the working class generally in order to prevent, or at least reduce, support for anti-war campaigns, criticism of government foreign policy and so on. The Bill is designed for use against the national liberation movements that are resisting Britain’s imperialist aggression and domination, and in particular against any support for those just struggles that raises its head in Britain itself. And further, it will be a tool in the hands of the ruling class to be used when needed against those who raise any criticism of the whole system of imperialism.
The pretended justification for this Bill, then, is cosmetic. Its measures will not be effective against the type of attack it pretends to counter, but it is put forward in the pretence that it is defending ordinary people on the streets. And what this cosmetic make-up tries to cover up is that it is actually designed to foment divisions and to intimidate and suppress criticism of the system of exploitation. It is designed to divert attention away from the fact that it is this very system that through plunder and wars of aggression to secure markets and control resources like oil actually gives rise to the very resistance to that oppression. It is that system which is responsible for bringing these ills down upon the heads of the people of Britain.
The only way to prevent these attacks is for British imperialism to desist in its campaign to subdue the parts of the world that it oppresses. But let us not forget that, so long as Britain is ruled by monopoly capitalism, it will be no more able to desist than a tiger is able to survive on grass.
Detention without trial
Originally the Bill proposed that the police would be able to arrest “suspects” and keep them locked up without charge for 90 days – three whole months. Much publicity has been given to claims by the police that this is needed so that they can carry out necessary investigations.
Mr Hayman, Assistant Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police wrote a letter to the Home Secretary in October claiming that it was “too risky” to wait until bombers could be caught with explosives, therefore early arrest was needed while investigation remained to be carried out. Time was needed identify names of suspects, follow up international networks, find interpreters for obscure dialects; decode encrypted data before interviews could be carried out; investigate mobile phone records, conduct complex forensic tests on ‘suspicious’ substances, allow time for detainees’ religious observances; and co-ordinate with busy solicitors.
This does give the impression of a lot of work for the police to do. The reality has been exposed by Gareth Peirce, a partner at Bernberg Peirce solicitors, well known for representing victims of ‘British justice’, many of them detained under the Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001. Writing in the Guardian of 9 November 2005, under the title ‘Don’t be duped by yet another dodgy dossier’, she questioned the police “case” for 90 days detention without charge.
The police dossier had cited a case where the poison ricin was supposedly discovered, and in which a number of innocent men were acquitted. This whole case was cooked up by the security services, and is in fact a very unfortunate case for the police dossier to cite. Firstly, the dossier claimed that had the police had 90 days “the suspect who fled the country while on bail and who eventually proved to have been a prime conspirator would have stood trial in this country.” Gareth Peirce points out that the police released this suspect after two days (long before they were obliged to do so), on their own decision! Second, the police and the Prime Minister were from the beginning trumpeting that it was a plot involving chemical weapons. Yet two years later a witness from Porton Down stated in court that there had been an immediate discovery that there had been no ricin at all, he had to suggest to the court that it was his fault that the police and government had not been informed! Third, most of those charged in the case had been held for considerably less than 7 days, and holding them for any longer would have made no difference anyway.
Regarding the time needed to establish identity, Gareth Peirce comments that suspects often wait for 48 hours or considerably longer for the first interview to establish name address and elementary background details. She says that custody records at the purpose built security section at Paddington Green police station show that for 90% of the time or more no interviews take place and it is solicitors who are begging for progress with the matter. They have only built two interview rooms and no space for defence solicitors, who have to walk up and down the Edgware Road outside waiting!
Gareth Peirce gives a harrowing account of the oppressive atmosphere of the white-tiled cramped and Spartan cells without natural light and with poor ventilation, in which people have, up to now, been detained for a maximum of 14 days without charge, and concludes that this oppressiveness is intentional. Even the solicitors feel ill and exhausted. The police have had to pay compensation to some detainees who suffered trauma after release; menstrual cycles have been drastically altered; students have never resumed studies; and among several who made the attempt one man committed suicide.
In December 2001 there was a rush to pass legislation to detain foreign nationals indefinitely without trial, and there were assurances that this was only going to be used as a last resort. It was not, and many were so detained. Gareth Peirce adds that men detained as being the most serious terrorism suspects at the time were not questioned for even 14 minutes, let alone 14 days.
House of Commons rejects 90 days, but votes for 28 days
In the event the 90 days was defeated in the House of Commons by a much discussed “revolt” of Labour backbenchers and some ministers who voted with the ‘opposition’ parties. What did they then do? They substituted 28 days! – as proposed by the Tories and LibDems. Of course, for those incarcerated 28 days is better than 90, and this is a real advantage. But in the wider scheme of things this action by parliament is more about empty noise than protecting the civil liberties of individuals.
Under criminal offences (that is those that do not come under the various terrorism legislation) the maximum number of days a person can be held without charge is 4 days, and even then it requires a magistrate’s permission. After the four days the person must be charged or released.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act 1975 provided for detention up to 7 days, and since then that has been extended to its present level of 14 days. So ‘terrorism’ legislation already allows for ‘suspects’ to be held for 10 days longer than for ‘ordinary’ criminal offences (like murder or massive city league fraud, which, of course, is not complicated stuff and does not need very long to investigate!)
There may be much prime time and late night television spent on the significance of who ganged up against whom in the Commons vote, whether Mr Blair has lost control, and when Gordon Brown might become Prime Minister. The result is, however, that the state will have twice as long as before to hold people in detention without charge. It may have to be reviewed after a year, but the number of days can be increased then anyway.
Intimidation and oppression
The truth of the matter is that extending this time to 28 days is not in order to allow for the police to make necessary enquiries abroad, or decipher encrypted messages. No, the purpose of this period of time is in effect to hold political prisoners without trial, it is so that communities can be harassed, so that a lot of ‘low level’ intelligence can be gleaned through fishing operations, so that people who raise political opposition to imperialism can be hounded, and in the process of all this there is the intention that people will be intimidated from taking part in any political activity, so that they fear going to meetings or attending demonstrations in case they are picked up and incarcerated.
We have the example of the way in which Irish people in this country were picked up under the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1975, many were detained and very few were ever charged. We have the examples about how election agents for Sinn Fein in N Ireland were hounded at election time so that they could not travel 100 yards down the road without being detained on one pretext or another. No the truth is that these measures will be used exactly in this way – to harass and suppress, and in the process foment divisions along racial lines and also along lines of religion.
This was exactly the case with the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1975. Large numbers of Irish people living in England (not to mention those living under British rule in the north of Ireland) were incarcerated and questioned at length. Very few were ever charged with any offence. The result was a lot of “low level” information (it seems ludicrous to call it “intelligence”!) which did nothing other than enable pressure to be brought to bear on those who were engaged in any kind of political opposition.
We come across this hypocrisy time and again. British imperialism says: ‘do not engage in any struggle except the political process which we control’. But if there looks like being any success at the ballot box that imperialism does not like, or in winning over public opinion by argument, then what British imperialism does is to come down heavily with all kinds of dirty tricks. For example, in Northern Ireland the Nationalists were exhorted to “use democratic measures”, yet, when Sinn Fein put up candidates in elections and looked like doing well, the constabulary and British troops harassed and attempted to intimidate party workers so that it was very difficult to conduct an election campaign. Sinn Fein election agents had to change their cars several times a day because of being stopped by the security services.
It is clear from the above that measures under the proposed legislation will be useless for the purpose that they are claimed to serve, namely to forestall attempts to set off bombs or other devices in Britain. More than that, there will be no attempt to use them in this way, just as previous legislation has not been used, because it cannot be effective. But that does not mean that it will serve no purpose for the ruling class, although its representatives have no intention of explaining this real purpose.
It will become clear as time goes by that, once law, the measures will inevitably entrap a large number of people. Anyone who takes the fancy of the security services can be picked up. It is tempting to believe that they will at least have had the misfortune to have spoken to someone that the security services are “interested in”, or to have attended the same mosque or been to a conference at a venue previously attended by such a “suspect”, etc. But the truth is that it will not even actually require that type of connection. The measures will be used to terrorise certain parts of the community, who will be picked up and kept in inhuman conditions for a long period, in particular Muslims but also anyone who is black, in the wider sense of the word.
And that brings us to the further reason why this legislation is being brought forward. It is designed to control and intimidate the working class of Britain, the ordinary citizens of Britain, in an attempt to prevent the growth of an effective movement to oppose the oppressive, exploitative rule of the monopoly capitalist bourgeoisie.
British imperialism really does want to rule in Britain itself by consensus. While it has no qualms about naked oppressive rule, as shown by its actions against the oppressed countries of Asia Africa and Latin America, not to mention Ireland, exercising bourgeois dictatorship through bourgeois democracy helps to keep things quiet on the home front.
But there is the danger for imperialism that the home front will not remain quiet for ever. The attack on the welfare state is continuing and the conditions of the working class in Britain promise to become harder and harder. There will be more protest, and the ruling class will have to contain it. So-called anti-terrorism legislation is part of the creeping preparations to provide the bourgeois state with legal tools to do so.
In the end, the only freedom that is really sacrosanct under the rule of the monopoly capitalist bourgeoisie is not freedom of speech, or even freedom to live, it is the freedom of the exploiting class to exploit. All bourgeois law is ultimately subservient to this sacred bourgeois freedom, and law is adapted as required to suit the circumstances, no matter how savage and brutal it may need to be. And it is in this light that this Terrorism Bill must be seen.