Labour in the dock (again)

Even in its (probable) dying days of power Labour is still being taken to task by the courts for railroading civil liberties under the pretence of protecting national security.

As the Guardian reports

The court of appeal has dismissed an attempt by MI5 and MI6 to suppress evidence of their alleged complicity in the torture and secret transfer of British residents to Guantánamo Bay.
In a devastating judgment, it ruled that the unprecedented attempt by the security and intelligence agencies, backed by the attorney general and senior Whitehall officials, to suppress evidence in a civil trial undermined deep-seated principles of common law and open justice.

MI5 and MI6 said evidence in the case, in which the Guardian, the Times and the BBC intervened, should be kept secret from everyone except the judges and specially appointed and vetted counsel.

The case concerns six Guantanamo detainees, including Binyam Mohamed, who has already won a separate case to make public information regarding his mistreatment. They have taken out a civil action against the government in respect of various abuses including torture and false imprisonment. The government was attempting to have the entire case heard in secret with evidence used in the government’s defence withheld from the claimants, a flagrant breach of natural justice. One of the judges who made the ruling, Lord Neuberger, put it perfectly –

The principle that a litigant should be able to see and hear all the evidence which is seen and heard by a court determining his case is so fundamental, so embedded in the common law, that, in the absence of parliamentary authority, no judge should override it … [it] represents an irreducible minimum requirement of an ordinary civil trial,

This follows a ruling last week by the European Court of Justice that restrictions on the payment of benefits to the wives of individuals who have had their assets frozen due to suspected terrorist activity are illegal. The restrictions included only being allowed to withdraw £10 a week in cash for each member of the household and having to regularly submit detailed reports of their finances to the Treasury. Right to the very end Labour has refused to learn that these kind of spiteful and vindictive measures do nothing to combat terrorism and do everything to undermine public support for the fight against it.

Taking Brown to task on child detention

An excellent piece at OurKingdom by Clare Sambrook, who takes apart Gordon Brown’s defence of the detention of the children of asylum seekers.

We believe that history will judge the administrative detention of children to be a moral stain on the reputation of this country, akin to slavery and child labour. One day we will look back in horror at the fact that innocent children, no different from our own, and capable of experiencing the same joy and wonder at the world and feeling the same anxiety, fear and pain were imprisoned in our name.

This issue, and the treatment of asylum seekers in general, is the great unsung scandal in this country. Meanwhile the leaders of our political parties bicker over who can be “toughest” on immigration.

H/T Justin @ Chicken Yoghurt

Return of the undead

It has been another difficult week for Barack Obama, with his little problem with Israel. What with his problems getting his healthcare reforms through congress and in finding a way to close Guantanamo Bay it might be understandable if Liberals on both sides of the pond were getting slightly frustrated, so it is fitting that in the last few days we have been given a reminder of why, whatever Obama’s faults, we should at least be truly grateful that the Republicans, or specifically the particular faction represented by Bush and his cronies, are out of power.

First we have Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove doing the rounds, touting his book and defending the use of waterboarding on terrorist subjects.

“I’m proud that we used techniques that broke the will of these terrorists and gave us valuable information that allowed us to foil plots such as flying aeroplanes into Heathrow and into London, bringing down aircraft over the Pacific, flying an aeroplane into the tallest building in Los Angeles and other plots,” he said.
“Yes, I’m proud that we kept the world safer than it was, by the use of these techniques. They’re appropriate, they’re in conformity with our international requirements and with US law.”

All very noble sounding of course, but even if one accepts that waterboarding does not constitute torture (and that requires a rather wide stretch of the imagination) we should be aware that this was only one kind of abuse which was suffered by detainees and remember the practice of extraordinary rendition, the black prison network and the outsourcing of torture to regimes less concerned with their international obligations and legal niceties. Continue reading

Amnesty and Gita Sahgal – keeping it in perspective

Flying Rodent has an excellent post here which pretty much nails the arguments over Amnesty International and its dispute with Gita Sahgal, the head of its gender unit over its “association” with Mozam Begg and CagePrisoners. There isn’t much more I can really add, except that if people are making a fuss over this because they are genuinely concerned about Amnesty protecting its reputation (and I don’t doubt this is true in some cases) then they might take care to keep their concerns and the tone in which they express them in proportion on the basis that AI is generally run by pretty decent people who are not terrorist huggers and on the whole does a large amount of very important work which dwarfs any individual (possible) errors of judgement like this. And also take care to distance themselves from those who don’t have such noble motives but are either using this to promote a wider agenda, either to portray all liberal lefty types as appeasers of terrorists and Islamists, or to actively undermine AI itself.
Of course AI should not be immune from criticism – like any organisation it can make mistakes and it hasn’t handled the whole situation very well. But it is perfectly possibly to make pointed but constructive criticism while at the same time making a wider defence of the organisation and its work as well.

Thoughts on assisted suicide

I have to say that euthanasia is one issue on which I genuinely find it impossible to reach a firm opinion. Still it’s right that the CPS has issued guidelines clarifying the law on assisted suicide – if people really feel moved to carry out such a drastic act they should at least know where they stand legally. What I don’t quite understand though is, given that these guidelines have mainly arisen from people travelling to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their lives, why citizens of this country should be prosecuted for something they did in a foreign country which is not illegal in that country. While there are some crimes (such as torture) which are so grave as to transcend national boundaries I think in general that people should be expected to obey the laws of whichever country they happen to be in at the time.

Incidentally, watching a report on this issue on last night’s news I was slightly disconcerted to hear my wife wonder aloud how much places such as Dignitas charge. I mean I’ve only got a slight cold FFS.

When Straw did show mercy to an old and frail man

I can’t say I have any strong views on whether Ronnie Biggs should be released from prison. Yes it may seem harsh to refuse him parole given the parlous state of his health, but he refuses to show any remorse for his crime, a normal condition for parole, and if he had stayed and served his time to start with instead of doing a runner to Brazil he would be free by now anyway.
So one can understand to an extent why Jack Straw was not inclined to be lenient towards an old man with failing health. However, as Duncan Campbell points out in today’s Guardian, he hasn’t always been so unsympathetic

A frail old man, barely able to communicate, guilty of a crime committed many decades earlier, but unrepentant about his past, wants only to be released so that he can spend his final days with his family. Some people object, saying that the nature of the crime is such that the old man deserves to die in custody. Enter Jack Straw, the member of the government who must make the onerous decision on the old man’s future. He realises that the old man is barely able to walk and is in a confused state of mind. He allows him to return home.

The old man was General Pinochet. In 2000, the then home secretary Jack Straw declined requests from Spain for Pinochet to stand trial for gross human rights violations and sent him back to Chile. Pinochet was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people, the torture of many thousands more, the removal of a democratically elected president and the looting of the national coffers. Straw still felt that mercy was appropriate.

The UK under fire on Human Rights

Following its recent embarrassment over the supression of intelligence relating to the treatment of Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed the government is now coming under fire from all sides over its record on human rights, civil liberties and torture.

Firstly, the UK has received strong criticism from the International Commission of Jurists for undermining international law and human rights in the name of the “war on terror”.

Singling out the UK’s use of a wide range of counterterrorism laws, the report highlights allegations of complicity in torture and intelligence sharing, the practice of rendition, and the system of control orders, as areas of particular concern.

“We have been shocked by the extent of the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counterterrorism measures,” said Justice Arthur Chaskalson, former president of the South African constitutional court, who headed the study.

Former head of MI5 Stella Rimington has also voiced similar concerns, accusing the government of exploiting the public’s concern over terrorism in order to undermine civil liberties

The 73-year-old said: “Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions of the Government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy.

“It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.”

Meanwhile, former Lord Bingham, the former law lord, complains of the extent of surveillance to which the British people are subject

It is in this context that we must review a development that is a cause of profound unease to many. It has recently been described, in unrhetorical but chilling terms, by the House of Lords select committee on the constitution in its recent report on Surveillance, Citizens and the State: “Successive UK governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world … The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of the second world war.”

He also makes a very good defence of the role of the judiciary in defending the British people from abuses of power by their elected representatives, something Jack Straw could take note of.

Such warnings are extremely timely, especially given that the extent of British complicity in the abuse and torture of terrorist suspects in Pakistan, including Binyam Mohamed, is now coming to light.

David Milliband spoke some very fine words recently on the subject of upholding our values and the rule of law.

We must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it, for it is the cornerstone of the democratic society. We must uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties at home and abroad.

I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the time and took him seriously when others were more sceptical, but those words are sounding rather hollow now.

Is the military playing dirty tricks?

It has been widely reported in the last day or so that Colonel Owen McNally, a British army officer serving Afghanistan has been arrested for leaking military secrets concerning civilian deaths in Afghanistan to Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, to whom Col. McNally was supposedly “close”.

Ms Reid has stated categorically both in a piece at CiF and in a statement issued through her lawyers that the accusations of any kind of relationship between her and Col. McNally are totally false and that she has only met him twice, both authorised meetings at Nato HQ and in the presence of other officials.

She accuses MoD officials of making “a vicious, false slur” and claims that this is motivated by criticisms that HRW has made of the US Military’s reluctance to investigate reports of civilian deaths caused by its troops. Continue reading

…and it gets even better

Obama continues to do the right thing

Barack Obama embarked on the wholesale deconstruction of George Bush’s war on terror, shutting down the CIA’s secret prison network, banning torture and rendition, and calling for a new set of rules for detainees. The repudiation of Bush’s thinking on national security yesterday also saw the appointment of a high-powered envoy to the Middle East.

Obama’s decision to permanently shut down the CIA’s clandestine interrogation centres went far beyond the widely anticipated move to wind down the Guantánamo Bay detention centre within a year.

He cast his scrapping of the legal apparatus set up by Bush as a way for America to reclaim the moral high ground in the fight against al-Qaida.

“We are not, as I said during the inauguration, going to continue with the false choice between our safety and our ideals,” Obama said at the signing ceremony. “We intend to win this fight. We are going to win it on our own terms.”

A good start…

From the Guardian

The US president, Barack Obama, has ordered a suspension of the controversial Guantánamo Bay military tribunals in one of his first actions after being sworn in, yesterday.

Within hours of taking office, Obama’s administration filed a motion to halt the war crimes trials for 120 days, until his new administration completes a review of the much-criticised system for trying suspected terrorists.

It’s good to see that not only has Obama addressed this issue but that it was so high on his list of priorities. It seems at least some of our optimism was not misplaced.