Blows to democracy

From The Guardian

The retreat from the rule of law – despite the enactment of the Human Rights Act – has been the deepest flaw of the Blair administration. Some retreat on civil rights was obviously necessary in the wake of this summer’s terrorist attacks. But as an eminent QC noted after the bombings: “It is all too easy to respond in a way that undermines commitment to our most deeply held values and convictions and cheapens our right to call ourselves a civilised nation.” Yesterday, towards the end of an interview on the BBC Today programme in which he unequivocally defended this week’s proposed strengthening of anti-terrorist measures, the prime minister was read a part of the QC’s opinion and reminded that the author was his wife, Cherie Booth. Expressing gratitude for the reminder, he conceded: “It’s important that we don’t respond in a way that damages the very fabric of our democracy.”

Here are three ways fundamental democratic principles are being quite unnecessarily damaged by this week’s moves. First, free speech. Under the proposed law anyone who “glorifies, exalts or celebrates” any terrorist act committed over the past 20 years could face a sentence of up to five years. Rarely, even within notorious conspiracy legislation, has there been such a broadly drafted clause. What makes it even more unnecessary is that the bill already tightens up the incitement to terrorism offence. If the test has to be overt endorsement of terrorism – as officials suggested this week – why not prosecute them under the direct incitement clause? More absurd still, the home secretary will be empowered to go even further and draw up a list of historical terrorist acts which if “glorified” could mean a criminal act had been committed. Consider the huge distractions such a list would generate, when all efforts ought to be concentrated on effective moves to pre-empt terrorism.

Second – which both opposition parties are rightly opposing – is a clause extending the right to detain suspects for questioning for up to three months. Remember, we are talking about suspects. Many will turn out to be innocent. The current 14 days was only recently introduced. Even at the height of the IRA campaign in the 1970s and 1980s, only seven-day detentions were allowed. Three months would be the equivalent of a six-month prison sentence given current 50% remission rules. Clearly the home secretary had doubts himself. An early draft of a letter he sent to shadow spokesmen was leaked yesterday. It included the line – “I believe there is room for debate as to whether we should go as far as three months” – that was deleted from the final version. Charles Clarke is not going to win the cross-party support which he was rightly seeking to build if he sticks to this proposal. He should drop it now.

The third threat to fundamental rights concerns the detention of seven Algerians earlier this week. They were alleged to have been involved in a plot to spread ricin, a deadly toxin. But the substances the police claimed were ricin contained no trace of the poison. Four who faced trial were found not guilty and the proceedings against the other three dropped, but they have still been declared by the home secretary as “a threat to national security”. There is no right for a foreigner in Britain to remain in this country once declared “non conducive to public good” save for two important caveats: that deportation does not lead to either torture or capital punishment. Algeria has a notorious reputation, documented by Amnesty International, for ill treatment and torture of prisoners. Our courts are bound to uphold these defences, set out in the Human Rights Act, and refuse their deportation to Algeria. The courts should stand firm – despite pressures from the prime minister -and uphold the rule of law. Our values, as Cherie Booth asserted, need protection.