- be imposed on the basis of secret evidence that may be withheld from the suspect themselves,
- be applicable to British citizens and foreign nationals alike,
- be imposed by the Home Secretary rather than by the courts, and
- involve sanctions including indefinite house arrest,
Family and friends of terrorist suspects held under house arrest could be subject to tough sanctions even though they have not been accused of a crime, it was disclosed yesterday.
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, said people living with those subject to executive control orders could be banned from using the telephone or internet and searched every time they came home.
If a person is suspected due to having regular contact with a (suspected) terrorist group, does that mean everyone who has regular contact with that person is also suspected? Will they then get subjected to banning orders? And their families? And their friends? How far down the chain will a particular Home Secretary or his advisers go?
What if (some people within) the security services “cherry pick” evidence to get a person they simply don’t like silenced this way?
What if the security services are fed disinformation by others to get a person they don’t like silenced this way?
Such questions highlight why the evidence should be tested in court.
Then there are further aspects of house arrest (which don’t apply to detention in a prison). For example, Alice Thomson writing in the Telegraph points out:
Mr Clarke makes house arrest sound a nice, cosy alternative to locking up a suspected terrorist without trial in prison. All it means is that the suspect’s wife won’t be able to natter on the phone.
But it’s not like that. His Cabinet colleague Peter Hain could tell him. House arrest was used extensively in South Africa when he was fighting apartheid. It meant the incarceration of entire families, who then became the focal point of discontent among communities.
The anti-apartheid activist Hilda Bernstein paints an appalling picture of her family’s house arrest in her book The World That Was Ours. She makes it clear that prison would have been better than the suffering her children had to undergo.
Or take Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party Secretary, who died this month in China after being under house arrest since the 1989 democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. “He is free at last,” said his daughter, who called his incarceration a death sentence.
Saddam Hussein used house arrest to great effect, as does North Korea. And then, of course, there is Burma, where the Nobel prize winner and pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been locked up by the junta for nine of the past 15 years, turning her into a martyr in the process.
House arrest takes away all dignity. It can destroy the lives of individuals who have not been proved to have committed any offence, and can allow grievances to fester. As the Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews said this week, what is the difference between Belmarsh and a bungalow? (Emphasis added)
This legislation, by giving the executive the power to lock up anyone it chooses on trumped up charges, has the potential to make the government a more serious threat to the lives of British citizens than the terrorists it’s ostensibly aimed at.
It is precisely when the state acquires such arbitrary power over its citizens that the state becomes dangerous. History has illustrated this time and time again, in Russia, Germany, Eastern Europe, Iraq, Iran, China, North Korea, and indeed the world over (yes I include this country).
We recently commemorated the closing down of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz at the end of WWII, but it appears we have still to learn the lessons of that dark episode in history.
It might not be this government that abuses this power, but can we trust the next one? Or the one after that?
Those who think our government would never do such things, should ponder how a cultured, developed European country in the 19th century, evolved into the barbaric state of Nazi Germany in the middle decades of the 20th century and should ponder the fact that Hitler was elected to power in (what was at the time) a democracy.