The British Parliament must not extend the practice of internment.
In the UK you can already be detained without charge or trial for 28 days if you are accused of terrorism, acts preparatory to terrorism, possessing material for a terrorist purpose, being a member of a terrorist organisation, funding terrorism, attending a terror training camp, inciting terrorism, and more besides. This is one of the longest periods allowed in a democratic country Update: the BBC article gets this all wrong. Here’s a much better analysis from Liberty [pdf]. Hat tip: UK Liberty. If the period expires before you are charged, you must be released from prison but will probably be placed under house arrest instead.
Now the Government wants to extend the pre-charge detention period to six weeks, citing public support and widespread fear about possible future terrorist plots (which they have been actively fomenting):
Today in Britain there are at least 2,000 terrorist suspects, 200 networks or cells and 30 active plots. The aim of terrorists is to kill and maim the maximum number of victims, indiscriminately and without warning, including through suicide attacks.
I am not afraid of terrorism and I don’t want my representatives to be afraid on my behalf. I accept that it is not possible to stop all terrorist acts. The risk is acceptable because terrorism is extremely rare.
So far this century 52 people in the UK have been murdered by criminals using terrorist tactics. Over the same period (extrapolating from figures reported in 2000) more than a million people have died from cancer; heart disease has finished off 880,000 of us; and 28,000 UK citizens were killed on the roads. It is rumoured that you are more likely to be killed by your own trousers than a terrorist bomb!
I have several objections of principal to the six-week internment proposal (and actually they apply to 28 days too):
- The Government hasn’t produced any evidence to show the measures are necessary, preferring instead to quote movie-plot threats about multiple, simultaneous attacks while ignoring the fact that we already have legislation to handle such situations – the Civil Contingencies Act. Sensible alternative suggestions from non-partisan sources have been rejected without satisfactory explanation.
- Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available. The longer the police have to investigate someone, the longer they will take. The existing powers have already been abused in this manner – a researcher at the University of Nottingham was detained without charge for six days over a matter that would surely have been satisfactorily resolved in 48 hours prior to the limit being extended.
- The longer the police investigate someone for, the more likely they are to find something with which to charge them, regardless of whether the investigation itself was legitimate or justified. “Give me six lines written by the most honourable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him” — Cardinal Richelieu.
- Terrorism is fantastically rare, so the vast majority of people interred under these powers will be innocent. Just 3.5% of people arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 have been convicted of terrorism.
- The longer someone is imprisoned, the bigger the impact on their lives. This applies even if no charges are brought. Think for a minute whether you’d still have a job, a spouse or a home if you’d spent the last six weeks in prison without ever getting your day in court or the chance to clear your name. There’s no smoke without fire, after all…
- People are playing politics with the issue. If the Government loses a vote in Parliament on the matter it will be widely interpreted as evidence of the Prime Minister’s weakness and incompetence – with knock-on implications for the Labour party’s chances of survival in power. Not an atmosphere that encourages rational debate and principled decision making! The Government has also been trying to horse-trade, offering DUP members of parliament concessions in return for their support. How is it that we’ve arrived at a situation where our fundamental liberties can be horse-traded?
Suspects against whom there is evidence of wrongdoing should be put on trial. Where there is no such evidence they should be released. We should stop dreaming up protection measures against movie plot threats and start investing in intelligence (which works regardless of the threats that might exist) and emergency response (which helps regardless of what type of incident occurs).
If you feel strongly on this issue, and you’re a British citizen, please take a few moments to write to your MP. You can do so online via TheyWorkForYou.com – just put in your postcode and you’ll be taken to a page where you can compose your message. If you need advice on what to say there’s a good guide on how to write an effective letter here.
Tell your MP you’re not afraid of terrorism and ask them to vote on your behalf against the extension of pre-charge detention to 42 days when the counter-terrorism bill comes before the Commons this week.