All the peacemakers

Socialist Unity has a notice for what looks like an interesting and important meeting:
Creating the Climate of Fear: Counter-Terrorism and Punishment without Trial

Friday March 14; 6.30-9.00 p.m, London Muslim Centre, 46 Whitechapel Road
Organised by Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, Centre for the Study of Terrorism

It’s a meeting about the proposed Counter-Terrorism Bill (the ’42 days’ bill, although there’s plenty more to object to in there). I’m not familiar with everyone involved, but there are certainly some good speakers on the list and some important issues on the agenda. The first two, for example:

Detention without charge would be extended from 28 days to 42 days
‘Terrorism suspects’ could be detained without charge for six weeks. Before 2000 it was 4 days. Neither government nor police have given any convincing reason why so long is needed. The USA manages with 2 days, even Algeria with 12.

Post-charge questioning of ‘terror suspects’ – presumed guilty?
‘Terror suspects’ could be subjected to further questioning after a criminal charge, even up to the trial date. Saying nothing could count against them at trial. At present, people once charged can refuse to answer till their trial, without this being interpreted as a sign of guilt or deception.

There’s more to this second point than meets the eye; in fact I’d argue that this phrasing (people once charged can refuse to answer) already concedes too much. Traditionally the relationship of the police to the courts has been essentially that of a sorting and delivery service: if there’s not enough evidence for a charge, you let the suspect go; if the evidence is there, then you bring a charge and hand the suspect over to the courts. At this point the police cease to have any interest in that person. There isn’t any question of a suspect once charged ‘refusing to answer’ further questions; by being charged, the suspect has moved on to being a defendant – and defendants are no business of the police. Any delay between the charge being brought and the defendant attending court is just that, a delay – an administrative problem.

Labour counter-terrorist legislation has repeatedly extended the length of time the police are allowed to detain a suspect before releasing him/her or bringing charges; this has been justified on the grounds that the nature of terrorist offences makes it particularly hard to get sufficient evidence. However persuasively this may have been argued by successive Home Secretaries, it is hard to see what makes terrorist offences more intractable than, say, transnational corporate fraud. It’s particularly hard to see why the evidence had become twice as hard to gather in 2006 as it was in 2003, and four times as hard as it was in 2000. (Informative post and alarming graphic here.)

What seems to have happened in practice, behind the ‘evidence-gathering’ justification, is the creation of a new stage in the process, for terrorist suspects: police detention. The introduction of post-charge questioning would entrench and formalise this: if no terrorist charge could be brought after 28 or even 42 days, the police could simply hunt around for evidence of an unrelated offence, charge the suspect with that and then carry on questioning. The scope for abuse – and inadvertent misuse – of this system is only too clear.

Of course, it’s true that powers like this could be a weapon in the war against terrorism – but so could just about any other power, up to and including selective assassination. (Would anyone argue Mossad was not effective in disrupting the PLO?) The point is whether the costs imposed by a power like this would be imposed justly: imposed on the guilty proportionately to their guilt and imposed on the innocent, as far as possible, not at all. To ask this question is to answer it: apart from anything else, it’s not the job of the police to determine guilt or innocence. In practice, we can be sure that some innocent suspects would fall foul of these powers. What’s more of a concern is that, in practice, there would be no way of minimising the proportion of innocents who suffered in this way: to do this would require identifying those who were innocent, which by definition could only be done after they had been passed on to the courts.

The funny thing about these successive increases in the maximum police detention period – in 1974, 2000, 2003 and 2006 – is that they’ve all happened under Labour. Mrs Thatcher wasn’t known for her civil libertarianism or her hostility to the police; all the same, her response to nearly getting killed by the Provisional IRA was to defy the ‘men of violence’ by refusing to implement new counter-terrorist legislation. Somehow that particular brand of defiance seems to have passed Labour by.

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