SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Taking liberties

New repressive laws are being introduced as part of the ‘war against terrorism’, writes MANNY THAIN. Shock at the scale of the human tragedy on 11 September is being used to erode democratic rights won by working-class people over many decades.

BRITAIN’S HOME SECRETARY, David Blunkett, is rushing through yet another anti-terrorism bill, with cross-party support, along with a series of other measures.

Asylum seekers suspected of posing a threat to national security will be detained if they cannot be deported. Blunkett will restrict access to judicial review of decisions made by the special immigration appeals commission. Four ‘accommodation centres’ are being built to house 8,000 asylum seekers, along with an extra 1,200 detention places to speed up deportations. Identity cards are being introduced for refugees. This will replace one divisive and humiliating practice – giving refugees vouchers which have to be exchanged in shops for food and clothes – with another public display of racial and cultural discrimination.

Black and Asian people will be targeted for ID checks whether or not they are refugees. People will be held if they fail to produce the documentation. Once introduced for a specific group, moreover, forcing ID cards on the rest of society will be easier. Customs officers and police will have the right to demand the removal of facial covering. Fingerprints taken in immigration and asylum cases will be retained for up to ten years. These are immigration policies dressed up as anti-terrorism.

On 11 October, five ‘law lords’ further concentrated power in the hands of the government. They ruled that the home secretary is best placed to decide what or whom constitutes a threat to national security and should enjoy wide discretion in exercising that power. They agreed that foreign nationals could be deported even if there is no threat to Britain. More asylum seekers will be refused entry. Others will be deported back to countries under oppressive regimes, especially where arms, trade and diplomatic deals are favourable to the British economy and political establishment.

A separate bill is being drafted to allow for EU-wide arrest warrants and to speed up the extradition of any criminal. Another emergency bill reinforces the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) which gave law enforcement agencies extensive powers to monitor internet traffic and e-mails.

After years of anti-asylum seeker propaganda from establishment political parties, the media and far-right groups, the impression given is that extradition takes years. The former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, is cited as a case in point. In reality, it usually takes a few months. Even Pinochet was in Britain for only 20 months. The reason he stayed so long was because his case plunged New Labour into a dilemma. Human rights and socialist activists tried to prevent Pinochet being returned to the safety of Chile and wanted him extradited to Spain to stand trial for crimes against humanity – the torture and death of thousands of socialists, trade unionists and community activists during and after his CIA-backed military coup in 1973. It therefore took some time before all the vested interests could manoeuvre Pinochet’s safe return while avoiding excessive political fallout.

Implementing the new measures requires the suspension of human rights law. Article III of the European Human Rights Convention – incorporated into British law during the last parliament – can block the extradition of suspects if they face capital punishment or torture. Article V bans illegal detention. Article XV, however, allows a state to opt out of a particular provision on the grounds of public emergency or a ‘threat to the life of the nation’. Marcel Berlins, a commentator on legal issues, summed up the dangers: "What the government is after, I fear, is not just speeding up the process but diminishing the safeguards". (The Guardian, 2 October)

Measures of social control

BRITAIN ALREADY HAS some of the most draconian legislation in the northern hemisphere. These latest measures extend existing laws. The Terrorism Act 2000 – brought in by Jack Straw – established a Britain-wide counter-terrorism framework, replacing earlier legislation which focused on Northern Ireland. Terrorism was loosely defined as "the use or threat of action" to "influence the government or to intimidate the public… for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause". It gave the home secretary powers to ban what are deemed to be ‘terrorist’ organisations and covers action directed against persons or property in Britain or overseas. It became a criminal offence to undertake training with or to raise funds for proscribed groups, whose assets could be seized.

Anyone causing ‘serious damage to property’, promoting or encouraging such acts, associating with people who perform them, or failing to tell the police what is being planned, can be included. Anyone believed to be plotting an action can be stopped and searched, and protest materials confiscated. The police can seize anyone who may be about to commit an offence and hold them incommunicado for up to seven days.

The law can be used against domestic protest groups, such as animal rights and environmental campaigners. It could be used against the anti-war movement, against workers on strike, anti-capitalists and other activists. Straw published a list of 21 proscribed organisations, the majority of which were Muslim and had not conducted terror campaigns in Britain. The list can be added to at will.

The Terrorism Act 2000 superseded the 1973 Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, which was passed by a Labour government in 1974. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) whipped up anti-Irish sentiment throughout Britain. The whole Irish community came under suspicion. As a result, intimidation, beatings and imprisonment of Irish people were carried out with impunity. According to Home Office statistics, 97% of those arrested under the PTA were released without charge. Included in the 1% who were convicted and imprisoned are some of the most outrageous injustices in British history. Penny Green, professor of law and criminology at Westminster University, concludes: "It was a measure of social control… It was used to repress political activity. A fishing expedition used for scanning information on a whole community". (The Guardian, 1 October) Similarly, followers of Islam, and black and Asian people generally, will be singled out. The PTA was also used widely to arrest trade union shop stewards and other militant workers.

The PTA was bolstered by the Additional Powers Act (1996). Then, after 28 people died in the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland in 1998, the New Labour government rushed through the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act. These laws threaten any action by workers, communities, environmentalists and anti-capitalists. The latest measures add to the existing and wide-ranging legislation, backed up with the state’s hardware.

The Metropolitan Police is looking to increase the number of armed officers. Currently, 1,750 (out of a force of 26,000) are authorised to carry guns. More than 1,500 extra officers have been patrolling London’s streets. Heightened security is costing at least £1 million a week in London alone.

The Treasury is reported to have released immediately more than £15 million to MI5 (security service), MI6 (secret intelligence service), and GCHQ (communications centre). The three agencies expect their bids for extra funding next year will be met – in addition to the £2.8 billion already agreed for 2001-04. (Financial Times, 10 October)

Not only is New Labour burying bad news in the wake of the 11 September attacks, it is now cynically burying hard-won civil liberties. It proves again that any ‘rights’ won by working-class people can and will be taken back whenever the ruling class gets the opportunity. Racism is divisive. It weakens working-class action over attacks on living standards and working and social conditions. Authoritarian laws make it more difficult to organise. Both need to opposed within the anti-war movement, as well as by working-class and young people generally.


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