Detention without trial

The existing powers of imprisonment without trial lapse on March 14. Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, apparently intends to introduce new counter-terrorism legislation to replace them. (The existing laws were heavily criticised by the law lords.) The proposals will give the Home Secretary the power to order that a terror suspect, British or foreign, be placed under surveillance, curfew and other restrictions, up to and including house arrest (though the Home Office never uses this phrase). Three fundamental principles of justice and liberty are stake.

First, it should be for the courts, not politicians, to decide who should be imprisoned.

Second, the powers will apply not only to crimes that have been committed, but also to crimes that the authorities expect to be committed. In other words, you will be liable for punishment even if you have committed no crime. (The recent film, Minority Report, portrayed a society with pre-emptive punishment.)

Third, you will be liable to be imprisoned on the basis of evidence that you have not seen and which you have had no opportunity to rebut. Dismantling these basic principles of freedom and justice is not a way to win the so-called war on terrorism: it is a victory for terrorism.

My father has been running an energetic campaign against these laws, including by resigning his position on the Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal, in protest at the extension of the powers of that tribunal (the powers which the law lords subsequently criticised). You can read his writings about the issues here. Please write to your MP about this. Our freedoms are at stake.

Tony Hatfield's blog quotes a majestic passage from A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt.

“Father”, says Margaret “That man is bad”. “There is no law against that”, More replies. And he continues: “The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal, not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal”. Meanwhile, Richard Rich has scarpered. “And go he should”, says More “if he was the devil himself until he broke the law”. But Roper protests. "He would cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil." More replies. “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast, and if you cut them down do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the eloquent endorsements, Owen. Our useful exchange of views about a possible and preferable alternative to Charles Clarke’s current (and wholly unacceptable) proposals continues in the ‘Comments’ following the text of my letter in the ‘Independent’ of 18 February at
    http://ephems.blogspot.com/2005/02/detention-without-trial-again-sorry.html

    I would like to think that the barrage of letters, articles and TV and radio interviews by organisations such as Liberty and Amnesty (and a few individuals including me) may have had some effect in swinging the attitudes of the Conservative and Lib Dem opposition parties in parliament against the government’s proposals, and hence in raising the possibility of defeating them in the House of Lords, although there’s precious little evidence that it has influenced even to the smallest degree the attitudes or intentions of Clarke, Blair or the home office.

    All continued support and publicity most welcome!

    Brian (your aged but still indignant ancestor)
    http://www.barder.com/brian/
    http://ephems.blogspot.com

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