Telegraph columnist: "House Arrest scarred me for life, Mr Clarke"

Eric Abraham, writing in the Telegraph, describes his house arrest in apartheid era South Africa:

“One crucial difference, however, remains. Within one week Charles Clarke must refer such an order to a court which has the power to quash it. How long such a judicial review will take seems unclear. But what of the psychological damage done to the individual who may well be innocent of any terrorist act, or even the intention to act, during the period prior to the outcome of a judicial review? The effect of the sudden brutal assault on my civil liberty almost 30 years ago remains with me to this day. The Cape Times editorial went on, “Mr Abraham is being sentenced to a living death and, unless he is an individual of extraordinary inner resources, is being subjected to a species of mental torture which could cause grave psychological damage”.

Since the imposition of house arrest, as opposed to banning (similar to the “lighter” version of Mr Clarke’s “control order”), was relatively rare in apartheid South Africa – certainly for whites – the white public presumption was one of my guilt of a crime of heinous proportions. South Africa was a fear-ridden society convinced that it was under terminal threat from “die swaart en rooi gevaar”, the black and red (Communist) danger. Fears stoked daily by the apartheid government. It is hard not to draw parallels with the Islamic fundamentalist terror threats which we are bombarded with daily – threats which Mr Clarke and Mr Blair use to justify the proposed Bill.

Not unlike an Islamic fundamentalist I was therefore Public Enemy No 1, held up to public gaze in a small ground-floor apartment. Not a good place to be at 22. The death threats started almost immediately. My telephone was left connected and tapped and they usually called at night. I would hear how I had betrayed my country and white skin and how they, Right-wing extremists, were going to kill me the next day. Because my case was taken up by Amnesty International and even prompted a motion in the Commons, I had armed police outside my house ostensibly to protect me from the extremist threats. Given the sympathies of the police I did not feel safe and slept in the bath on a number of occasions. My car brake cable was cut, a hearse arrived to collect my body, wreaths were delivered, known violent Right-wingers belonging to a group called Scorpio walked up and down the street outside.

I was scared for my life. No law should enable a government minister to impose restrictions that would subject anyone to this kind of experience for any period of time. Isolation and fear. These are the abiding emotions, the residue of which still lurk deep in my sub-conscious. How odd. I write this with the window wide open and the cold wind gusting around me and yet I find that I am sweating.

But, unlike Rick Turner, the first husband of the Labour backbencher Barbara Follet, who was murdered under house arrest in South Africa in 1978, I was lucky. In 1977 I escaped after a few weeks into 15 years of exile. I left a repressive police state for a liberal democracy where the rule of law was sacrosanct, where house arrest and torture were as inconceivable as slavery. It was a country which generously gave me a safe haven and political asylum – another great tradition. It was Britain.”

I fear that the Britain Mr Abraham writes of is dying.

And although the judge may review the detention within 7 days, because the detainee and his lawyer may be barred from seeing the evidence used to justify the detention, a proper defence cannot be mounted.

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