Saturday, November 01, 2003

Courts approve use of Terrorism Act against peaceful protestors

Back when the Terrorism Act 2000 was merely a bill, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary at the time, reassured us that "There is nothing in the bill that will interfere in the right of people to protest peacefully, " and "The legislation is not intended to deal with alleged offences properly dealt with under the existing criminal law. Neither will it in any way curb individuals' democratic rights to protest peacefully."

So of course it came as a complete surprise (NOT) when the Terrorism Act 2000 was used against peaceful protestors in London. Still given Straw's reassurances and the fact the current Home Secretary David Blunkett does not control the police directly, it might seem only fair to wait for the outcome of the legal challenge. Well the courts have upheld the use of the Terrorism Act in these circumstances. So much for the reassurances given by Straw when it was a bill. It is worth remembering why he gave the reassurances. It's all down to the definition of terrorism, which states:

1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-
(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate
the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political,
religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-
(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

(4) In this section-
(a) "action" includes action outside the United Kingdom,
(b) a reference to any person or to property is a reference to any person, or to property, wherever situated,
(c) a reference to the public includes a reference to the public of a country other than the United Kingdom, and
(d) "the government" means the government of the United Kingdom, of a Part of the United Kingdom or of a country other than the United Kingdom.

(5) In this Act a reference to action taken for the purposes of terrorism includes a reference to action taken for the benefit of a proscribed organisation.

Clearly, this definition covers acts of mere civil disobedience, or even threats thereof. It seems clear to me the police could argue that any demonstration involves a threat of "terrorism" so defined, since some of the protestors might try to damage property or threaten to do so through civil disobedience. Once the police get approval to stop and search on this basis, they have the power to search anyone for articles that might be used for "terrorism", e.g. anything that could be used to damage property, or for disrupting an electronic system -- a faxable document for example, mass faxing being a way of disrupting a fax machine which is an electronic system.

The irony is that the trading of arms is far more likely to have involved real terrorists or the risk of such arms falling into their hands than the protests against the trading of arms going on outside the fair.

The moral of the story is that govt assurances that legislation is not intended to be used in certain situations are worthless when the legislation explicitly allows such usage. Bear in mind the above definition of terrorism, and look over the offences in the Terrorism Act 2000 and ask yourself how easy it would be to arrest perfectly innocent people as "suspected terrorists". A more detailed article on the Terrrorism Act can be found here.

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