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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Opposition growing to house arrest proposals

It seems that opposition to Charles Clarke’s proposals to impose house arrests on suspected terrorists without trial is growing. Firstly, there was George Churchill-Coleman’s comments to the Guardian claiming that the proposals were impractical and he feared that Britain was “sinking into a police state”.

Then, both the Tories and Liberal Democrats are reported to be opposed to the measures:

“Controversial government plans to keep terror suspects under house arrest rather than in jail could falter in parliament and fail to become law.

The Conservatives declared on Wednesday they would oppose the new scheme, hastily drawn up after the highest court ruled that imprisoning foreign suspects without trial broke human rights law.

With the Liberal Democrats also against, and many in the Labour party uneasy, the legislative battle could be bloody.”

However Michael Howard, the Tory leader has agreed to meet with Blair to discuss the proposals:

“Mr Howard argued that it was wrong in principle for anyone to be deprived of their liberty “on the say-so of a politician” and argued that those accused of terrorist offences should be brought to trial and detained in prison in the meantime.

Mr Howard went on to ask Mr Blair to meet him “to see if we can agree on a way forward which will command a wide degree of public confidence on these vitally important issues”.

Acknowledging the civil liberties implications of the Government’s plans, Mr Blair said he would be “perfectly happy” to meet Mr Howard to see whether it was possible to find a common way forward on dealing with terror suspects who cannot be brought to trial.”

I suspect a stitch up job here, which will result in measures only slightly less fascist than these proposals being agreed to.

But then yet more opposition has appeared, with the head of the Metropolitican Police, Sir Ian Blair coming out in favour of using intercept evidence in court as an alternative:

Perhaps more importantly Sir Ian also disagrees with the Government about the best way of dealing with suspected terrorists. Although Charles Clarke is proposing to detain suspects in their own homes without trial, the Commissioner believes that it would be better to allow intercept evidence to be used in court so that they can be tried.

“I have long been in favour of intercept evidence being used in court,” he says. “In policing terms, it would make my job much easier. The simple reason why it would be better is that if we’ve got this, we can put it in front of a court and the court can weigh it up. At the moment, nobody can test it.”

His concern with the proposals for house arrest is that Muslims will feel alienated from the police if they see officers searching everybody who goes into a suspected terrorist’s house.

“The community will say to us, ‘What are you doing with these people, why have you got these people under all of this, why don’t you just tell us what it is you’ve got?’ That’s my position but, of course, there’s a legitimate argument on the other side.”

He is using diplomatic language, and I’m not sure there really is a legitimate argument on other side (save in the most extreme circumstances, but we’re not facing those), but it is clear he’s at odds with the government on this. It is worth noting that the civil liberties group “Liberty” has also come out in favour of accepting intercept evidence in court:

Backing Sir Ian’s stance, Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said: “Judges rather than politicians should decide when to authorise phone tapping.

“However, if it is legitimate to eavesdrop on someone’s private phone calls, it is nonsensical not to use relevant material in a criminal trial.”

It really is strange that Britain and Ireland alone in Europe do not allow intercept evidence in court. The US does it, France does it, Israel does it, Canada does it. Their security agencies seem to be able to cope why not ours?

And isn’t worth trying measures that will help bring people to trial rather than dispensing with a trial altogether, at a serious risk to individual liberty?

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Recent commentary on the House Arrest proposals

The Adam Smith Institute Blog says:

Sure, a liberal order must protect itself from those who would destroy liberalism itself. And maybe, at times, you have to act illiberally to do that. But you should still act according to the rule of law. If there is evidence, it should be produced in court. If the evidence is too sensitive to be made public, then it should be heard in private before qualified judges. At the moment we are jailing people, and soon we will be imprisoning them in their homes, on the say-so of a politician. That is scary.

I quite agree.

Tim Worstall, whose blog I recently added to my side bar, writes in an article entitled “Stalinism Returns”:

The cornerstone of whatever freedoms we have managed to accumulate over the past millenium or so is the right to a trial by jury, with the associated presumption of innocence and Habeus Corpus. Everything else, and I do mean everything, that we enjoy, prosperity, freedoms of speech, association, property, are all reliant on this one base, and now they want to take that away from us.

This is an important point. The right to defend oneself against an accusation does form the basis upon which individual freedom lies. Without it, your freedom can be snuffed out at the whim of a politician.

Over at the Samizdata blog, they had this to say:

The Daily Telegraph appears to blame the Human Rights Act, noting that this decision is ostensibly being taken because the Law Lords said that it was illegal to empower the Home Secretary only to detain foreigners arbitrarily. This view is advanced notwithstanding Lord Hoffman’s ditcta that applying such a equally rule to British citizens is no more defensible. But it is an absurd idea that such unlimited arbitrary power of arrest and detention is something the government reluctantly finds has been thrust upon it.

I agree that the claim the Human Rights Act is to blame is flawed — the new measures are just as much a breach of human rights as the old — and that the image of a government reluctantly forced to consider these measures is absurd. The government has been attacking civil liberties, in all sorts of legislation — not just anti-terrorism legislation — for years, and started this well before 9/11. They haven’t tried obvious measures that might allow more prosecutions of suspected terrorists such as using intercept evidence in court (as almost every other developed country, including Israel with its long experience of terrorism does). It seems to me that, far too often, an attack on civil liberties is this government’s first resort when faced with a problem. This is a government addicted to executive power.

The excellent spy.org.uk blog comments:

The plan seems to be to allow a “whole range” of measures under a regime of Control Orders which could include house arrest, electronic tagging, denial of telephony or internet access, denial of association with some as yet unspecified people etc., all without actully having to present any evidence to a court. The whole point of having to go through a legal court procedure is precisely so that politicians and faceless petty officials cannot impose ever changing Kafakaesque rules and regulations which cannot be challenged by the defendant.

The 60th Anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp brings to mind the quotation from Pastor Martin Niemoller, who was locked up in the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps:

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

How can this Labour Government introduce such a fundamental attack on the the principle of Habeas Corpus ? The end does not justify the means.

Finally some further comments of my own. There has been a steady, systematic attack on civil liberties going on in Britain now for many years, which started well before 9/11 and which has involved attacks across many areas of policy, not just crime or anti-terrorist policy. These proposals are the latest and most extreme yet.

It seems to me that each time a proposal to weaken civil liberties makes it into law without the government facing punishment from the electorate and without there being any other effective opposition or backlash, it provides encouragement for further attacks. Each new attack that passes by without an outcry/backlash from the population proves that the government can probably go yet further still and get away with it.

There is also another aspect of this that worries me. Each time civil liberties are successfully weakened and each time the executive acquires an arbitrary/draconian power over individuals, those who might abuse such powers are encouraged to press for more and given more opportunities to take power themselves.

It does not matter that the intent of the politicians may be benign, the above points will hold. This process is making Britain vulnerable to tyranny.

And here is my final point: If the government gets away with enacting these proposals without a serious backlash, it will demonstrate that even more draconian measures could be enacted before a backlash occurs.

Given how draconian these proposals are, that scares the hell out of me.

And remember there’s already an enabling act ticking away on Britain’s statute books!

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House arrest without trial proposed.

Charles Clarke announced today his response to the recent Law Lords ruling that indefinite detention of foreign nationals who are suspected terrorists without trial contravened the ECHR.

Instead of detaining them in jail, Clarke has decided to allow indefinite detention of British resident, regardless of nationality and without trial, in their own homes:

Under the new powers, the government would no longer be able to jail suspects without charge, but could forbid them from meeting certain people, impose curfews or electronic tagging on them or confine them to house arrest.

Unlike the previous measures, which were based on immigration law and applied only to foreigners, the new measures could be used against British nationals. The government would not have to prove suspects had committed a crime.

It’s still total loss of liberty, and total loss of liberty without due process is exactly what the Law Lords ruled is wrong,” Natalie Garcia, lawyer for two detainees, told Reuters.

“It used to be foreigners. It can be absolutely anyone now. You can be one day, normal citizen minding your own business, next day banged up in your home unable to go out in the garden.“(Emphasis added)

And who would decide which people get subjected to this treatment? Charles Clark (or any future Home Secretary):

The proposed changes would mean the home secretary could order British citizens to be held under house arrest without putting them on trial.

Thus the fascist control freaks British government are proposing to give themselves the power to jail anyone in Britain, on the say so of the Home Secretary (not the courts!), and prevent them from communicating with others — possible restrictions include restrictions on accessing telecommunications/the internet as well as who you can meet.

If this comes to pass, how long will it be before the govt proposes to extend these powers to those suspect of any serious crime rather than terrorism? The excuse being we can’t afford to allow (suspected) paedophiles, murderers, rapists, organised criminals, fox hunters, or ID card dodgers to roam freely…

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