Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lords crush 42 day detention bill

The most important news coming out of the UK yesterday was not the rescue of the banks but the House of Lords crushing defeat of the government's plans for pre-charge detention of up to 42 days and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's announcement late last night that the government would now drop the measure from the latest anti-terror bill. Naturally it is buried on the inside pages of the papers and doesn't even make an appearance at all in some of them.

"Plans to give police up to 42 days to question terrorism suspects were crushed by the House of Lords last night, halting a three-year, high-wire political battle begun in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings.

The Government conceded defeat after peers voted against the measure by 309 votes to 118 – the biggest loss since hereditary peers were forced to give up their seats in 1999 – and in a humiliating climbdown announced that the provision would be removed from the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

This came after opposition to the proposals from all quarters, with 24 Labour rebels including two former Lord Chancellors, Lord Irvine of Lairg and Lord Falconer of Thoroton, as well as Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, Lord Justice Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Condon, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

The Government moved swiftly to limit its embarrassment and in an emergency Commons statement last night, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, announced that the 42-day proposal would be published in a separate draft Bill that could be voted on in the event of a national emergency. "

The checks and balances of the unwritten British constitution may yet have some life in them in the war on the politics of fear.

Update: Liberty's 42 WRITERS FOR LIBERTY is excellent. Phillip Pullman for example:


Why 42 days?

What they mean is six weeks, of course. Six weeks! Six weeks in prison without being charged! Anything could happen in six weeks. Wars have lasted less than six weeks. In six weeks, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic and discovered the New World. Six weeks was enough time for Mozart to write three of his greatest symphonies. William Faulkner took six whole weeks to write his novel As I Lay Dying; John le CarrĂ© wrote The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in five. In six weeks, on average, each of the 2,710 Liberty Ships were built in the USA during the Second World War to supplement the Allied merchant fleets. Robert Louis Stevenson took three days to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but six weeks to revise and polish it. In six weeks the Wright brothers’ mechanic, Charlie Taylor, built from scratch the light and powerful engine that powered their first flight. In one month in 1819 the poet Keats wrote his Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, and Ode on Indolence.

I could multiply the examples a hundredfold, taking in every sphere of human activity, but you get the point: people can do complex, extraordinary, profoundly difficult things in 42 days or less. Six weeks is a long time.

And now we learn that among the almost insuperable obstacles needing the full majesty of the human mind to overcome is the task of interrogating a prisoner and gathering enough evidence to bring a conviction. Apparently it’s so subtle and complex a process that it too needs no less than six weeks to complete. What makes it even more impressive is that this discovery has only been made in Britain. No other democracy has realised the profound difficulty of this process; some countries appear to think so little of the intellectual challenges of the task that they allow only two days for its completion. 48 hours! Preposterous.

We don’t know how lucky we are, to live in a nation where police officers have all of six weeks to discover why they’ve locked us up. Ask them after 41 days why a prisoner is still behind bars, and they can honestly and innocently say “No idea, mate.” But give them that extra day, and they’ll crack it, and be up there with Mozart and Christopher Columbus."

And Terrance Blacker:

"In the end, it is a matter of trust and terror.

The government says, ‘Trust us. There are people out there who want to use terror to kill innocent people. They threaten our values and our way of life. They are so dangerous that the normal, basic liberties of citizens must be suspended in order to protect you and your family.’

But the lesson of this century has been that the more a government asks you to trust them, the less you should.

The last time we were asked to put our trust in their confidential information, the great secret truth that we were promised turned out to be a convenient lie. By then, the country was at war and thousands died.

A government who tries to frighten its people into giving up hard-won human rights almost always has something to hide.

It is using terror in order to threaten our values and our way of life.

Now why does that sound so familiar?"

And Rachel North:


7/7/05: The Westbound Piccadilly line train was at crush capacity as it pulled away from Kings Cross. To travel on it was to be uncomfortably intimate with strangers; to feel the warmth of their backs, bellies, shoulders pressed into your own body, the smell of rain-damp clothing, the prod of elbows, umbrellas, bump of handbags and rucksacks. When you are so close to your fellow passengers that you can feel their breath on your cheek, it is considered polite not to meet their eyes.

Perhaps that was how he was able to do it; the nineteen year old man with the home-made bomb held close to his body. Perhaps he did not look at the faces of the men and women around him as he set off the detonator.

We will never know because the 26 people closest to him were killed.

The acts which we call most evil are those which display a pitiless lack of empathy towards fellow-humans. In the wake of such acts, anger, outrage and fear follow our shock.

Terrorism is the dark art of wielding fear as a political weapon. To provoke a horrified reaction, to seed fear and hatred and division is the goal of the bomber. He harnesses our nightmares and uses them against us. It gives him power when we deem him our terrible enemy and demand the government respond.

But the unspoken truth is that it is not possible to keep us safe. There is no legislation that can protect us from the man who moves amongst us with a bomb on his back and hate in his heart.

Even if every man and woman and child is watched over and monitored every moment of every day. Even if every conversation, every email, every transaction is recorded; if armed police and sniffer dogs travel on every bus and train and stand guard outside pubs and schools and shops and stadiums. It still would not keep us safe.

Accepting this is hard but it is the price of our freedom.

We walk out of our homes and into the world every day as free men and women. We are protected by ancient liberties that thousands have died to protect. They are to be cherished as much in the age of the suicide bomber as in the age of the threatened enemy invasion.

To give them up is to let terrorists win."

And Mohsin Hamid

"Before moving to Britain in 2001, I had lived in the United States for over a dozen years. I came and went from America with little difficulty. Not long after the events of 9/11, I had my first experience of “secondary inspection.” Although I possessed a green card, I was taken out of the regular immigration line and put in a separate room. There I waited. I was asked whether I had ever been to Afghanistan. I answered in the negative. I was asked whether I had ever had combat training. I answered in the negative. I was told to wait some more. I was not allowed to use my mobile phone. Two hours passed. Eventually I was permitted to proceed into the United States. But two hours of detention without charge was enough time for my imagination to run free.

I wondered if I had been mistaken for someone else. I wondered if that mistake might see me denied entry to the country. I wondered if I might be held incommunicado and questioned before being deported. I wondered if I might be held incommunicado and questioned indefinitely – and have to plead to be deported.

Two hours of detention without charge caused me, an innocent man, to change my behaviour thereafter. I began carrying copies of my books and articles whenever I flew. I found excuses to travel to the United States less often. I became slightly nervous days in advance of my trips there. I ceased to think of myself as an individual at airports and began to think of myself as a suspect.

I have experienced firsthand the toll that one twelfth of a day can take on a man. It is perhaps for this reason that I see in 42 days of detention without charge a horror our society must find the strength to resist."

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