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Anti-Terrorist Laws

John Simkin

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The law lords ruled by a 8 to 1 majority yesterday that the indefinite detention without trial at Belmash and Woodhill high security prisons was unlawful under the European convention of human rights.

This is what three of the judges said:

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. (Lord Hoffmann)

Indefinite imprisonment… on the grounds not disclosed, is the stuff of nightmares, associated whether accurately or inaccurately with… Soviet Russia in the Stalinist era and now with the UK. (Lord Scott)

It is not for the executive to decide who is locked up for any length of time, let alone indefinitely. Only the courts can do that… Executive detention is the antithesis of the right to liberty. (Lady Hale)

Jack Straw has replied: “The government's responsibility - and it is a prime responsibility - is to protect people from the threat of terrorism. On this huge dilemma of how to balance liberty and order, the most important liberty is the right to life. If that liberty is taken away by the terrorists, then we have not met our prime obligation as a government."

Straw rejects the comparison with Soviet Russia claiming that these people are free to go to any country willing to have them. In that respect he is right. A better comparison would be with Adolf Hitler who said in the 1930s that German Jews could go free as long as they could find other countries to take them. Of course, they had great difficulty doing that and many died in German concentration camps.

The British government is following the lead of the US government. As John Ashcroft argued, it is based on the idea of pre-emptive action. This means that you have to imprison someone because of what you suspect they might do in the future. That raises the issue of how someone can prove they do not intend to commit an act of terrorism in the future. Nor can the government prove this. That is why they are held without trial.

As someone once said: “If God believed in pre-emptive action, he would have destroyed Satan before creating Adam and Eve.”

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