Our freedoms are being attacked on a number of fronts on the excuse that this is necessary to protect us from terrorism. This became clear at a meeting called by Oxford Stop the War Coalition on 10 February. James Welch, Legal Director of Liberty, outlined the range of ways in which our liberties are under threat.
He began by talking about identity cards. Although he felt the government was genuine in its views that they would protect us from terrorism and help fight crime, it was clear that they fail miserably to do this. In addition they would create a whole new range of crimes, all at great expense both to card holders and taxpayers. The introduction of identity cards would also be bad for community relations and would increase the marginalisation of groups already marginalised in society.
James then spoke about recent changes to laws on protest. These had been significant and often ridiculous, for example a demonstration now needs just two people to participate to enable the police to place conditions on it! The Serious Organised Crimes Bill aims to severely restrict the right to protest in the vicinity of Parliament - all because the government wishes to get rid of Brian Haw, the anti war protestor who has set up camp in Parliament Square.
A number of challenges to recent abuses of anti-protest laws are currently under way. For example people corralled by police in Oxford Circus during the May Day 2001 demonstrations are currently challenging this action. The challenge is being led by a woman who needed to get home to her child and a man who wasn’t even on the demo. Similarly the Fairford protestors arrested and forced to return to London under police escort are challenging the police actions in Court.
Finally James spoke about detentions under the Anti Terrorism Act - legislation which applies only to foreign nationals and which led to the indefinite detention of 16 so-called terror suspects on the basis of evidence heard in secret in a process not subject to legal scrutiny. One of the Law Lords who recently ruled against the government’s right to detain people in this way described the detentions as “the stuff of nightmares”. Use of this legislation has necessitated the government derogating itself from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The irony of Tony Blair’s recent apology to the Guildford Four was not lost on those present at the meeting. How can the government apologise for this earlier miscarriage of justice when what it is doing now is even worse? In the case of the Guildford Four a crime had been committed and there was a trial before a jury. If such a grotesque miscarriage of justice was possible in those circumstances than how much greater the chances when there has been no specific crime and no trial!
It is clear that we must do all we can to campaign against the government’s increasingly draconian approach to fighting a perceived threat of terrorism by attacking civil liberties, particularly the liberties of those already marginalised by their social class or ethnic origin.