42 days: the meaning of life…

United Kingdom MPs are about to vote on the law to extend the time police can hold terror suspects without charge. 

And there in is the real issue for those who appose this measure, the words ‘without charge’. This point seems to have been missed by the 75% or so of the populous who have been polled and found to be broadly in favor if extending detention from 28 to 42 days. The Government says that is in the best interests of protecting the safety and security of the United Kingdom, but so far no one has explained just how extending detention without charge will do just that.

Detention Before Charge?

For centuries we have relied on the legal principle of ‘Habeas Corpus’ (Latin for ‘We command that you have the body’.) This is the name of a legal action, or writ, through which a person can seek relief from unlawful detention of themselves or another person. The writ of habeas corpus has historically been an important instrument for the safeguarding of individual freedom against arbitrary state action and right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus has long been celebrated as the most efficient safeguard of the liberty of the subject.

Detention without charge was first enacted in the 1970s as a response to republican terrorism under anti-terrorist legislation from the original enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974 (repealed). The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (repealed) contained a provision permitting the detention by the police of a person arrested on suspicion of involvement in acts of terrorism for a period of up to 48 hours following his arrest by a police constable, and for a further period of up to five days if the Secretary of State approved such an extension. This power was available to police officers anywhere in the UK. These powers have since been extended to 28 days of detention and now the proposal of 42 days.

Many people have said it is a good idea, we should ‘stop the terrorists’ and so on. All of this sounds wonderful, but remember this is without charge while the evidence is being found. What if by some mistake, or even by deliberate intention, YOU are held as a suspected terrorist.

But, you say, that can’t happen! Can it? Could it? The introduction of the Terrorism Act 2006 states that is ‘An Act to make provision for and about offences relating to conduct carried out, or capable of being carried out, for purposes connected with terrorism’, but doesn’t define terrorism. In recent years Police enforcement of the anti-terror laws has created some unintended consequences, including the shooting of the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes as he ran to catch a train. Others are just nutty, and the government’s proposals to deal with terrorism seem more designed to combat civil liberties than terror.

  • A 34-year-old woman arrested for walking to work on a bike path, instead of cycling, in an area secretly designated a “designated area” and held under the “anti-terrorism act.”
  • An 82-year-old man (and a younger man who jumped in to assist him) tossed out of the Labour conference for heckling Jack Straw.
  • A French journalist held for hours after wearing a bulky jacket and neglecting to make eye contact.
  • My own experience on the DLR, where a tourist was surrounded by police officers after taking videos.
  • The government’s proposal to increase the length of time a suspected terrorist can be held without charges, from 14 days to three months.
  • The establishment of a “no protest” zone which includes a vast swath around Westminster.

(And these are just the incidents I remember; no doubt there are more.)

Why should we worry? The terrorists are out to get us; what’s the loss of a few civil liberties? We’re all willing to pay a price, aren’t we, for security?

When police are allowed to arrest anyone, anytime, and conveniently mark it up to the anti-terrorism laws, we’re all in danger, even if we didn’t do the heckling or walk down a path intended for bicyclists. Unfortunately, draconian laws don’t make us safer: When a young man is arrested for “walking while Muslim” and sent to jail for three months without charges being filed, and his family is visited by Muslim extremists trying to convince them the real enemy is the British government, and his little brother listens to their arguments, and he joins a terrorist cell to “get even”…then we’re not safer.

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