Since the 2001 terrorist attacks there have been numerous changes to our civil liberties; the restrictions on our rights have been justified as we apparently need safety before freedom… though have we actually gained either?
Under Blair’s government we saw the introduction of several new laws aimed at tackling terrorism. Detention without charge was first mentioned in the Terrorism Act 2000 then the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Terrorism Act 2006. Each act has increased the amount of days by which a suspected terrorist can be detained, from 14 days to 28 days (the government wanted 90 days but was defeated in the Commons). Note the word ‘suspected’; evidence is not a requirement. Between 11 September 2001 and 31 December 2004, 701 were arrested in the UK under the Terrorism Act. Only 17 have been convicted of offences under the act.
In December 2004, a constitutional crisis occurred surrounding the case of several men who were detained in Belmarsh Prison. They successfully argued that their indefinite detention was against Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights which regards a person’s liberty. This was a constitutional matter because the government did not seem to respect judge’s interpretations of human rights within court. The nine men who were being detained either faced torture (if repatriated to their home countries) or indefinite detention in the UK. None of the nine men were subject to any criminal charge. The court did not accept indefinite detention of foreign suspects compared to a 14 day detention of national terror suspects. The UK was found to be in breach of the ECHR.
The British Government introduced a system of control orders to replace indefinite detention, following the outcome of the Belmarsh Detainees Case. Under control orders you can face house arrest for 18 hours a day. Mouloud Sihali faced these grueling control orders a few months after being freed from Belmarsh; he said that the house arrest was even worse than prison. As of March 2007, the British Government reported that 18 control orders were currently in force, eight of which were in respect of British citizens.
You’ll be glad to hear that control orders are no more. In 2011, the government bought in a new system called ‘T-Pims’ Though is it all that different? The Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act . still allows charge without trial, secret evidence that cannot be challenged and house arrest. These bills come into place on the basis of protecting our human rights though the latter still infringes our right to liberty.
Of course it is understandable that after such horrific attacks on New York, worldwide governments have to show that they are tackling the threat of terrorism, though the increased power of the police has been abused. In 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes was shot by police as they believed he was a suicide bomber; they were able to shoot him under Operation Kratos which refers to tactics for dealing with suspected bombers. He was innocent and the police had given incorrect statements as to his actions and how he was dressed, making him appear more culpable than he actually was. Another example of unnecessary police tactics was when senior Labour Party member, Walter Wolfgang, was forcibly ejected from an annual Labour Party Conference in 2005 for shouting “nonsense” during Jack Straws speech on the Iraq War. He was detained under the Terrorism Act 2000.
Our right to protest has been dramatically reduced in terms of where we can protest and need for police permission beforehand. Somewhat reducing the point of a protest. The UK government even has the power to state any part of the UK as a no protest zone.
Many of the laws bought in during the Blair governments. have phenomenally reduced our civil liberties. The majority of what we consider to be our basic human rights can infact be overturned by one anti-terrorism law or another. Such is the case for freedom of speech, right to a fair trial and a right to life. Returning to the question of whether safety or freedom is more important, whatever your answer may be, it seems that sacrificing your freedom provides no correlation with increased safety.
But alas, there is hope… The coalition has introduced a Protection of Freedoms Bill to erase the database state which we saw under Blair’s governments. A few of its provisions include: terrorist suspects will be held for 14 days, as appose to the current 28, police stop and search powers will be restricted and measures which allow serious fraud trials without a jury will be scrapped.