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In the name of fighting terrorism, successive governments have been ramping up their war against the working class...

The rise and rise of state power


Ever since the Labour government's draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1976, successive governments have increased their power over us in the name of fighting terrorism. These emergency measures have facilitated torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and loss of liberties.

The 2000 Terrorism Act's broad definition of terrorism has become the standard for all anti-terrorism laws in Britain. It defines terrorism as the use or threat of action where the action is designed to influence the government or advance a political, religious or ideological cause. Under this law, peaceful protesters have been stopped, searched and items have been seized from them.

After the attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001, Blair passed a series of new laws, even though Britain already had some of the toughest "anti-terrorism" laws in Europe. The implementation of these laws has led to serious abuses of civil liberties. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, British authorities can order indefinite deprivation of liberty without charge or trial on the basis of secret intelligence – and this power applies to British and foreign nationals alike.

After the July bombings in London Blair said, "Let no one be in any doubt. The rules of the game are changing." He then outlined yet more measures that threaten civil liberties, the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. These include the new Terrorism Bill currently before Parliament. Some of its most sweeping and vague provisions, if enacted, would undermine the rights to attack the government, to association, to liberty and to a fair trial.

The Blair government has allowed abuses to be committed by British officials and armed forces personnel abroad, including in Iraq. In November 2004, government representatives claimed that certain provisions of the UN Convention against Torture could not be applied to British operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee concluded in March 2005 that "some British personnel have committed grave violations of human rights of persons held in detention facilities in Iraq".

The Blair government is also breaching international and British law by interning without charge or trial some 14,000 people (as of November 2005) in Iraq. Even after months of internment, government forces hold internees without providing them or their legal counsel with adequate information to enable them to refute the evidence being used to continue their internment.

Jack Straw said on 11 November 2004, "There are certainly circumstances where we may get intelligence from a liaison partner where we know, not least through our own Human Rights monitoring, that their practices are well below the line. But you never get intelligence which says, 'here is intelligence and by the way we conducted this under torture' ... It does not follow that if it is extracted under torture, it is automatically untrue." Straw's statement is evidence that government connives in torture; it is also an attempt to justify the practice of torture.

In December 2005, the Blair government lost its legal battle to reverse the total ban on the admissibility in judicial proceedings of information obtained through torture. Seven Law Lords unanimously confirmed that such evidence is inadmissible. Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Senior Law Lord, stated, "The principles of the common law, standing alone, in my opinion compel the exclusion of third party torture evidence as unreliable, unfair, offensive to ordinary standards of humanity and decency and incompatible with the principles which should animate a tribunal seeking to administer justice."

In January 2002, White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez (now Attorney General) urged a "new paradigm" of interrogation, claiming that the war on terror "renders obsolete" the "strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners" required by the Geneva Conventions. (Blair echoed this when he said, "The rules of the game are changing."). Home Secretary Charles Clarke has said that the government would not be constrained by international conventions or by the way the judiciary interpreted them.

In August 2002, the US Justice Department issued a secret memo authorising the CIA to inflict pain and suffering on detainees up to the level of "organ failure". It claimed that under "necessity" the President could override all laws, national and international, prohibiting torture.

As a result, so far eight detainees suspected of terrorist activities have been tortured to death in American custody.

Under international law, states are obliged to prohibit 'rendition', the transfer of an individual to another state where that person faces a real risk of serious rights violations, including enforced 'disappearances', torture or other ill-treatment, prolonged arbitrary detention and denial of their right to a fair trial. Rendition is itself illegal, because it entails kidnap, arbitrary arrest, detention and unlawful transfer without due process of law. States are obliged to prevent, criminalise, investigate and punish all of those acts, including conspiring in them, or aiding and abetting them.
Yes, Minister?
The Blair government is proposing a Bill that would allow ministers to change any act of parliament, and allow EU measures to be introduced automatically, without parliamentary process.

The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill 2005-06 is designed to extend the scope of the powers available to ministers to amend, repeal or replace any law and to reduce parliament's scrutiny of this process. The government has said that it would not use this procedure to take 'highly political measures, such as amendments to terrorism law or the Parliament Act', although there is no such commitment in the bill.

Under its earlier Regulatory Reform Act, of 2001, the government can amend laws by delegated rather than primary legislation. The government acknowledged then that this Act was 'constitutionally ground breaking'. But this new bill goes much further.

Lord Holme, the chairman of the Constitution Committee in the House of Lords, has expressed the committee's worries about this bill: "we are concerned by the potential of the bill's proposals, if enacted, markedly to alter the respective and long-established roles of ministers and parliament in the legislative process. This is because Part 1 of the bill seeks to confer unprecedentedly wide powers on ministers to make Orders to amend, repeal and replace any legislation (and to grant powers in respect of rules of the common law in relation to Law Commission recommendations), with only a very restricted role for Parliament in the process. The reforms thus have the potential to be so far reaching that especial consideration will need to be given by the Committee to the risk of inadvertent and ill considered constitutional change."

The Regulatory Reform Committee says that the bill "has the potential to be the most constitutionally significant bill that has been brought before Parliament for some years". In everyday parlance, this bill would allow Blair and his court to rule by edict, to assume absolute power. The bill would also make it easier to update EU regulations. Part 3 of the bill brings forward measures that were in the European Union Bill 2005-06 (now shelved) to allow technical amendments to EU law to come into effect automatically in Britain, without the need to amend domestic regulations made to implement the original EU law. Also, the bill would allow the government to use many different forms of delegated legislation to implement EU measures: at present it can only use regulations to do so.

This government's pretences of democracy and accountability are crumbling, as its policy of abandoning Britain becomes ever more apparent.

Rendition is a key element in the US state's global system of concentration camps, which is designed to detain people free from any legal restriction or judicial oversight. All of the victims of rendition who have been interviewed have also been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Prolonged incommunicado detention in secret locations itself amounts to torture.

MI6 officers have taken advantage of the legal limbo and coercive detention conditions in Guantanamo Bay, at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, in prisons in Iraq, and at other undisclosed locations where people are held in US custody, to conduct or witness over 2,000 interviews. Such interrogations have taken place without respect for the rights of the detainees. MI6 officers have taken part in, witnessed and condoned the interrogation under duress of British suspects and others in US custody and the custody of other countries.

The Blair government is undermining the absolute international prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment by sending foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities to places where there is a real risk that they would be subjected to serious human rights violations. It is negotiating bilateral agreements ("diplomatic assurances" known as Memorandums of Understanding) with governments in countries where the practice of torture and other ill-treatment is routine.

However, the UN General Assembly has made clear that such "diplomatic assurances do not release states from their obligations under international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law". Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, stated, "Diplomatic assurances, which attempt to erode the absolute prohibition on torture in the context of counter-terrorism measures ... are not legally binding and undermine existing obligations of States to prohibit torture, are ineffective and unreliable in ensuring the protection of returned persons, and therefore shall not be resorted to by States."

In February 2006, the government was trying to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to reconsider its ruling that the prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment includes an absolute ban on sending a person to a country where there is a real risk that they would be subject to such treatment.

On 23 February 2006 Blair said, "People devote the most extraordinary amount of time in trying to say that the Americans, on rendition, are basically deporting people, or returning people to countries for torture – and people spend very little time in actually looking at what the threat is that we face and America faces, from terrorism and how we have to deal with it."

Inquiries Act 2005
Notwithstanding strong criticism, parliament voted to adopt the Inquiries Bill on 7 April 2005, the last possible day before it was dissolved pending the general election. The Inquiries Act 2005 enables the executive to control inquiries, blocking public scrutiny of state actions.

The government decides the inquiry's terms of reference. It appoints and can dismiss members of the inquiry. It can exclude the public from the inquiry, and impose restrictions on attendance by witnesses, on production of evidence, and on public disclosure of this evidence. It decides whether to publish the inquiry's final report, and whether to omit any evidence from the report "in the public interest".

Lord Saville of Newdigate, the chair of the Bloody Sunday Tribunal of Inquiry, expressed the view that the act "makes a very serious inroad into the independence of any inquiry; and is likely to damage or destroy public confidence in the inquiry and its findings".

In April 2003, the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, delivered his long-awaited report into collusion in Northern Ireland, only a short summary of which was published. It confirmed widespread collusion between state agents and loyalist paramilitaries, including state agents being involved in murder, such as the killing of the lawyer Patrick Finucane. It also confirmed the existence of the British Army's secret intelligence unit known as the Force Research Unit, which had actively colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in targeting people, including Finucane, for assassination.

Free speech
The Terrorism Bill permits the proscription of any organisation whose activities include the "glorification, exaltation or celebration of the commission, preparation or instigation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of acts of terrorism or are carried out in a manner that ensures that the organisation is associated with statements glorifying, exalting or celebrating the commission, preparation or instigation of such acts".

It also criminalises "indirect incitement" to violence. It is already, rightly, a crime to call, "Kill the Jews/Muslims/Christians". But what would count as "indirect incitement"?

We have a right to free speech, which includes the right to express insulting or offensive opinions. This is a legal right, not a moral one. It is no crime in this country to deny the holocaust, to decry homosexuality, to insult a person's religious or other opinions, to support the Palestinian people's right to resist the illegal Israeli occupation or to oppose Blair's illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.