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Issue 32, November 1998

Labour's new PTA

SEIZING ON THE wave of revulsion at the Omagh bombing, the Labour government, acting in concert with the government in Dublin, recalled parliament in early September to rush through new emergency powers which pose a permanent threat to democratic rights.

The 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and the 1996 Additional Powers Act, already gave police wide-ranging powers to stop and search, arrest, detain, and question. These powers led directly to miscarriages of justice such as the imprisonment of the Guildford Four. As is patently obvious, they did not stop acts of terrorism - but they aided the growth of nationalist paramilitary organisations by intensifying feelings of anger and grievance amongst Catholic workers in Northern Ireland.

Now, Blair and Home Secretary Jack Straw have rushed more powers through parliament which further erode the right to be considered innocent until proved guilty. In fact, the new law will remove this right completely in cases where the state uses the new Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act. The word of a senior police officer will be 'proof' to convict someone of being a member of what the Home Secretary declares to be a 'banned organisation'. The officer can refuse to substantiate his or her opinion on grounds of 'national security'. No concrete evidence has to be provided, so the officer's opinion can be based on rumour and speculation. The only corroboration required is the silence of the suspect. The onus of proof is therefore on the suspect rather than the prosecutor, and silence will be taken as admission of guilt. The accused will not be allowed to have a solicitor by their side during questioning.

This legislation is particularly inflammatory to Catholic workers in Northern Ireland, where the senior police officer would be from the overwhelmingly Protestant RUC, seen by Catholics as an instrument of sectarian repression. But wherever it is used, it removes the prosecutor's need to provide evidence-based proof of guilt, opening the way for the imprisonment of innocent people.

After terrorist acts, the police are under pressure to secure quick prosecutions and so will be keen to use this legislation. Also, police dishonesty and corruption adds to the dangers. Forty officers have been suspended in a recent Metropolitan Police corruption inquiry and as a result around 300 convictions are being re-examined. Ironically, the day after the new Act had been rushed through parliament, it was revealed that the Greater Manchester Police paid 10 million in 1995 to secretly settle a legal action against them for malicious prosecution. This arose from the police's dirty tricks campaign against a Manchester businessman and his friend, John Stalker, a senior police officer who went too far in investigating the RUC's 'shoot to kill' policy in the mid-1980s.

  The new law was introduced at this stage for propaganda purposes, so Blair could appear to be tough on terrorism, and not be out-done by the measures of the Irish government. But although a rushed response to an immediate situation, this law will stay on the statute books for future use. It could potentially be used against any organisation that a government wishes to ban, which could include socialist organisations. The PTA was introduced by the last Labour government in 1974 as a 'temporary' measure, but is still in force today, subject to annual renewal.

The Labour Party opposed the renewal of the PTA during the 1980s, until their relentless move to the right led them to accepting it in 1996. Blair himself said in 1993 that 'if we cravenly accept that any Act introduced by the government and entitled 'Prevention of Terrorism Act' must be supported in its entirety without question, we do not strengthen the fight against terrorism; we weaken it'. Labour did repeal the law on internment earlier this year, but this latest Act brings back internment in another form.

There was disquiet amongst some MPs and members of the upper house as the new Bill was pushed through, as many understood it to be a major attack on civil and human rights. But they meekly concentrated on criticising the shortness of time for debate, and generally succumbed to the view that it is better to be seen to be doing something (however 'unwise') than to appear impotent in the aftermath of terrorist atrocity.

The Blair government has also used the new Act to push through 'anti-terrorist' laws on behalf of its friends abroad - particularly the US government and some regimes in the Middle East and Asia. Foreign governments have complained for a long time that their own dissidents and suspected 'terrorists' have been able to peacefully plan their work in Britain, and have demanded action from the British government. Now, with this latest legislation, the Attorney-General and Foreign Secretary can have anyone arrested who they decide is conspiring to commit a terrorist act against a foreign government.

This means that anyone campaigning in Britain for even basic democratic rights under a repressive regime abroad could face arrest, especially if the leaders of that repressive regime are amongst the friends and trading partners of the British government, as many are. If this law had been in force 20 years ago, every member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain could have been liable to prosecution, and many other political activists before then and since.

When the Indian government, say, demands action against a politically active group of Kashmiris or Tamils living in Britain, it will be down to the interests of the British government whether the group of workers are judged as legitimate 'freedom fighters' or dangerous 'terrorists'. Just as the US government didn't feel under any obligation to produce evidence against the people it bombed recently in Sudan and Afghanistan, neither will it or any other capitalist government feel the need to produce any evidence of 'terrorism' when they consider their interests are threatened by individuals or groups living in Britain.

Judy Beishon

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