For prosecuting terrorist offences, David Blunkett recently proposed trials where evidence is kept secret from the defendant, judges and lawyers are vetted by the security agencies, and guilt is determined on “the balance of probabilities” test rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”. According to the Guardian:
But Mr Blunkett said during his visit to India and Pakistan that new powers might well be necessary because the nature of “suicide terrorism” meant the only effective measures were preventative.
There was no point in threatening to put terrorists on trial after they had blown themselves up. Mr Blunkett’s new thinking on counter-terrorism were voiced as he visited the site in Amritsar of a massacre by British troops in 1919 of more than 400 Indians who were protesting at the introduction of the Rowlatt Act, which gave the British emergency powers to imprison without trial.
Clearly Blunkett is emphasising the need to preempt suicide bombers to deal with them effectively. This can already be done under existing legislation. Consider that under the Terrorism Act the following all apply:
- It is an offence, punishable by 10 years in prison, simply to be a member of a proscribed organisation.
- It is an offence, punishable by 10 years in prison, to provide support (financial or otherwise) for, further the activities of, or claim to be a supporter or member of a proscribed organisation (e.g. al qaeda).
- It is an offence, punishable by 10 years in prison, to arrange meetings in support of a proscribed organisation
- Police can arrest someone, without a warrant, simply on suspicion of being a terrorist.
- People arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist can be held without charge, originally for upto 1 week but recently this has been extended to 2 weeks (see comment on this article from spy.org.uk).
- It is an offence, punishable by 10 years in prison, to possess something in circumstances where the police suspect you possess it for a purpose connected to instigating, committing or planning acts of terrorism.
- It is an offence, punishable by 10 years in prison, to possess or record information in circumstances where the police suspect you possess it/recorded it, for a purpose connected to instigating committing or planning acts of terrorism.
- It is an offence, punishable by life imprisonment, to direct, at any level, the activities of a terrorist organisation.
It is also illegal to possess firearms, explosives and various other materials without licences under other laws.
Clearly there is plenty of scope for arresting and detaining for upto 1 week, anyone the authorities have the slightest suspicion of.
Then, if you can’t get them for actually carrying out a terrorist attack, you can get them for:
- membership of a proscribed organisation
- providing funds to terrorists
- possessing information or equipment that can be used to carry out acts of terrorism
- weapons training
- or for directing any of the activities of any organisation concerned with committing acts of terrorism(the organisation does not need to be proscribed)
Someone planning to become suicide bomber is likely to commit more than one of the above offences before setting out to execute the bombing. He will have had to get materials and equipment from others, who can also be targeted. What happens once the suspect is in custody and/or taken before a court is irrelevant to preemptively stopping the attack occurring. These are only relevant to whether a would be bomber might be set free to try again. Good intelligence and a solid investigation are the best defences here. A solid investigation will the best means of ensuring a suspected terrorist can be convicted, if not of attempting/carrying out an attack, then of one of the myriad offences above.
And even if this fails, a suspect who is prevented from an attack, and then released, can be kept under surveillance and hauled in again at a moment’s notice under existing legislation.
Thus there is plenty of scope to stop suicide bombers, using preemptive action already available under Britain’s anti-terrorist legislation. About the only thing one might wish to add would be a specific offence of planning terrorist activities.
The key to preventive action is good intelligence and solid investigation of any terrorist events that do occur. The problem here is that Blunkett’s proposals may undermine the latter.
If you lower the burden of proof, you reduce the need/incentive for a solid investigation to convict someone. Thus investigators will decide to move to prosecution earlier in their investigations than they do now. This increases the likelihood of getting the wrong person and letting the real perpetrators go free.
If you allow evidence to be kept from the defence/defendant, you effectively lower the burden of proof and allow defendants to be stitched up very easily, and again increase the risk of letting real terrorists go free.
Blunkett’s proposals, are not merely an offence to the rule of law, they are the abandonment of the rule of law. With secret trials, security vetted judges and counsel, evidence kept from the defendant and a low burden of proof, no-one would be safe from a government (or merely some govt officials) who wanted them out of the way. They are also completely unnecessary for dealing with suicide bombers.
The powers we already have for arresting/detaining suspected terrorists, and the offences they can then be charged with are sufficient, given accurate intelligence and the will to use them when necessary.