You'd Better Not Believe It

By John Fitzpatrick, 10 April 2000
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John Fitzpatrick on how New Labour are planning to phase out politics, errr sorry, ‘terrorism’.

The Prevention of Terrorism Bill, currently passing through Parliament, represents the single most serious attack on civil liberties in this country since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 and the original anti-terrorist legislation of 1974.

The Bill brings together, amends and also extends the existing anti-terrorism statutes. From 1974 until now it has been acknowledged that the anti-terrorism powers conferred on police were so draconian that they could only be justified on a temporary basis because of an emergency facing the country. In Britain they are called ‘temporary provisions’; in Northern Ireland, ‘emergency provisions’. Now, just when the emergency which spawned them is all but over, the ‘temporary provisions’ are to be made permanent.

The new law will still enable the police to hold suspects for up to seven days (although in order to comply with the Human Rights Act of 1998 judicial authority must now be sought for detention over two days — which is still 12 hours longer than the longest time the police can normally hold suspects). Most of the old terms are renewed: the proscription of organisations, enhanced arrest powers, random stop and search regimes, the positive duty to disclose information to the police. Included are those provisions which were rushed through in 1998, such as inciting terrorist acts abroad and the offence of possessing information likely to be useful to terrorists (with the burden on the person to show they have a reasonable excuse for having the information).

New terms are added, including new powers for police, customs and immigration officials to seize property, and making it an offence for someone who makes weapons instruction for terrorist purposes generally available, for example via the Internet.

The most startling development in the provisions themselves, however, is the extension of the definition of what constitutes terrorism from:

"the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear," to:

"the use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, of action which - ( a) involves serious violence against any person or property, (b) endangers the life of any person, or (c) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public." (emphasis added)

This is extraordinary stuff. The criminal law is now to have a permanent, separate regime for those whose allegedly criminal activities are directed at advancing a political, religious or ideological cause. You can be suspected of using or threatening violence because you are hungry, angry, greedy or just plain bad, and you will be subject to the normal criminal law, with current safeguards. But if you are suspecting of doing it for a ‘cause’ you, and anybody who incites or supports you, or doesn’t inform on you, will be subject to anti-terrorism law. Even if you speak at a meeting knowing that the meeting is also to be addressed by a member of a proscribed organisation, whatever you say you commit an offence. The counter-terrorist powers apply whether or not you are in a proscribed organisation. Even if your conduct is directed against property, or creates a serious risk to public safety: sitting down in a road you may be a target.

Whatever your view of road protestors, animal rights activists, anti-GM food aristocrats, anti-corporate demonstrators, to take some currently prominent causes, it is hard to see why they should be potentially subject to much harsher criminal procedures than those applied to ‘non-ideological’ activities. You may not agree with those who burn books (serious violence to property?) because they offend their religious sensibilities, but why should those charged with that not enjoy the safeguards normally available to those accused of criminal damage?

This a profoundly ideological piece of legislation. It is directed at ideas and causes as well as at deadly activities such as plotting to plant bombs. It seeks to stigmatise and penalise not just activities of that sort, and many more which are nowhere near as harmful, but to add extra punishment where those activities are undertaken because a person actually believes in something.

John Fitzpatrick <J.F.Fitzpatrick AT>