Monday, February 28, 2005

Big brother proposals from EU and US

The Sunday Times reports that the EU and US authorities are planning to fit satellite trackers to all cars to monitor speed, location/routes taken and the wearing of seatbelts:

BLACK box recorders could be installed in all new cars under a European Union ruling.

The aircraft-style equipment would also act as a tracker, using global positioning satellites to record the location and route of a vehicle and to tell how fast a driver is going and whether seatbelts are being worn.

Data recovered from the boxes could give investigators important clues on how accidents are caused.

However, British motoring groups fear the technology could be used by government to introduce a national congestion charge or to keep tabs on people’s movements.

The European commission has asked the police forces of member states to look at whether the technology could improve road safety. Every year about 50,000 people are killed on European roads and another 3.5m are injured.

If, as expected, the police give their backing, manufacturers would be required to install black boxes in all new cars by 2009.

The National Transportation Safety Board in America also wants to make them mandatory by the same date. Already 15% of vehicles in the US are fitted with the palm-sized devices. Most new cars there have them fitted as standard. (Emphasis added)

Oddly enough, a couple of years back, the UK government was proposing similar stuff as a means of performing nation-wide congestion charging/road tolling.

The day when you're activities are continuously tracked 24/7 is not long off.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Telegraph columnist: "House Arrest scarred me for life, Mr Clarke"

Eric Abraham, writing in the Telegraph, describes his house arrest in apartheid era South Africa:

``One crucial difference, however, remains. Within one week Charles Clarke must refer such an order to a court which has the power to quash it. How long such a judicial review will take seems unclear. But what of the psychological damage done to the individual who may well be innocent of any terrorist act, or even the intention to act, during the period prior to the outcome of a judicial review? The effect of the sudden brutal assault on my civil liberty almost 30 years ago remains with me to this day. The Cape Times editorial went on, "Mr Abraham is being sentenced to a living death and, unless he is an individual of extraordinary inner resources, is being subjected to a species of mental torture which could cause grave psychological damage".

Since the imposition of house arrest, as opposed to banning (similar to the "lighter" version of Mr Clarke's "control order"), was relatively rare in apartheid South Africa – certainly for whites – the white public presumption was one of my guilt of a crime of heinous proportions. South Africa was a fear-ridden society convinced that it was under terminal threat from "die swaart en rooi gevaar", the black and red (Communist) danger. Fears stoked daily by the apartheid government. It is hard not to draw parallels with the Islamic fundamentalist terror threats which we are bombarded with daily – threats which Mr Clarke and Mr Blair use to justify the proposed Bill.

Not unlike an Islamic fundamentalist I was therefore Public Enemy No 1, held up to public gaze in a small ground-floor apartment. Not a good place to be at 22. The death threats started almost immediately. My telephone was left connected and tapped and they usually called at night. I would hear how I had betrayed my country and white skin and how they, Right-wing extremists, were going to kill me the next day. Because my case was taken up by Amnesty International and even prompted a motion in the Commons, I had armed police outside my house ostensibly to protect me from the extremist threats. Given the sympathies of the police I did not feel safe and slept in the bath on a number of occasions. My car brake cable was cut, a hearse arrived to collect my body, wreaths were delivered, known violent Right-wingers belonging to a group called Scorpio walked up and down the street outside.

I was scared for my life. No law should enable a government minister to impose restrictions that would subject anyone to this kind of experience for any period of time. Isolation and fear. These are the abiding emotions, the residue of which still lurk deep in my sub-conscious. How odd. I write this with the window wide open and the cold wind gusting around me and yet I find that I am sweating.

But, unlike Rick Turner, the first husband of the Labour backbencher Barbara Follet, who was murdered under house arrest in South Africa in 1978, I was lucky. In 1977 I escaped after a few weeks into 15 years of exile. I left a repressive police state for a liberal democracy where the rule of law was sacrosanct, where house arrest and torture were as inconceivable as slavery. It was a country which generously gave me a safe haven and political asylum – another great tradition. It was Britain.''

I fear that the Britain Mr Abraham writes of is dying.

And although the judge may review the detention within 7 days, because the detainee and his lawyer may be barred from seeing the evidence used to justify the detention, a proper defence cannot be mounted.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Scottish Parliament votes against Labour's ID cards plans

Today, on the basis of a motion put forward by the Scottish Green Party, Members of the Scottish Parliament voted, by a margin of 52 to 47, with 15 abstentions, against the govt's planned identity cards:

The Scottish Parliament has voted against UK Government plans to introduce identity cards.

The measures were branded "regressive" and a threat to personal freedom during a debate called by the Scottish Greens at Holyrood.

Labour insisted that the system would actually strengthen civil liberties.

MSPs rejected ID cards by 52 votes to 47 after the Green motion received cross-party support, although the matter is reserved to Westminster.

It should be noted that whilst the Parliament cannot oppose the measures outright, they can prevent the cards being required to use public services in Scotland and thus can minimise its impact.

None of the Scottish parties other than Labour could support this measure, not even the Tories who say they're in favour in principle.

The Lib Dems abstained, claiming that the motion did not go far enough in opposing ID cards outright, as opposed to the govt's specific plans. Whilst this was true, it seemed to me that defeat of the motion would have been a blow to the campaign against the cards and that a stronger motion would have seen the Tories oppose, thus making it likely the motion would be defeated.

Nevertheless, this is a welcome development for those opposed to the ID cards and the database associated with them. Thanks should go to the Scottish Green Party who gave up one of its few slots in the Parliament for this debate and the accompanying motion.

Now for the House of Lords...

Barbara Follet MP on house arrest

A report from the Scotsman quotes the novelist Ken Follet's wife:

Mrs Follett (Stevenage), now married to novelist Ken Follett, said the system of control orders proposed by Home Secretary Charles Clarke bore “an extraordinary resemblance” to those used under apartheid.

She told the Commons during second reading debate on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill that Richard Turner was placed under house arrest in 1973 because he campaigned to give black people the right to vote and join trade unions.

He lived under the order for five years, unable to work or leave home, until he was assassinated in front of their two daughters Jann, 13, and Kim, aged nine.

“House arrest hampered but didn’t stop him,” she said.

“That is probably why, just before his five year order was due to expire, he was shot dead in front of our two young daughters in their bedroom.

“In the days that followed I tried to comfort them by telling them we were going to go to Britain where people were not detained without trial or put under house arrest.
She said she would not support the Bill and called on Mr Clarke to change the orders so they can only be implemented by a judge, to consider using intercept evidence in court and to write a sunset clause into the Bill.

“The end does not justify these means,” she said.

“The example we set will stay with us for many years.

“These principles are the very basis of our democracy and the Labour Party – destroy them and you destroy us.”''
We have:
[This list is not comprehensive.]

Should we be surprised when they put forward measures like house arrest without trial, on the say so of the Home Secretary, with evidence kept secret from the detainee and his legal representatives and try to rush them through the House of Commons in the space of 1 week with only 2 or 3 days of debate?

If they get away with this, what will they try next?

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Opposition growing to house arrest proposals

It seems that opposition to Charles Clarke's proposals to impose house arrests on suspected terrorists without trial is growing. Firstly, there was George Churchill-Coleman's comments to the Guardian claiming that the proposals were impractical and he feared that Britain was "sinking into a police state".

Then, both the Tories and Liberal Democrats are reported to be opposed to the measures:

``Controversial government plans to keep terror suspects under house arrest rather than in jail could falter in parliament and fail to become law.

The Conservatives declared on Wednesday they would oppose the new scheme, hastily drawn up after the highest court ruled that imprisoning foreign suspects without trial broke human rights law.

With the Liberal Democrats also against, and many in the Labour party uneasy, the legislative battle could be bloody.''
However Michael Howard, the Tory leader has agreed to meet with Blair to discuss the proposals:

``Mr Howard argued that it was wrong in principle for anyone to be deprived of their liberty "on the say-so of a politician'' and argued that those accused of terrorist offences should be brought to trial and detained in prison in the meantime.

Mr Howard went on to ask Mr Blair to meet him "to see if we can agree on a way forward which will command a wide degree of public confidence on these vitally important issues''.

Acknowledging the civil liberties implications of the Government's plans, Mr Blair said he would be "perfectly happy'' to meet Mr Howard to see whether it was possible to find a common way forward on dealing with terror suspects who cannot be brought to trial.''

I suspect a stitch up job here, which will result in measures only slightly less fascist than these proposals being agreed to.

But then yet more opposition has appeared, with the head of the Metropolitican Police, Sir Ian Blair coming out in favour of using intercept evidence in court as an alternative:

Perhaps more importantly Sir Ian also disagrees with the Government about the best way of dealing with suspected terrorists. Although Charles Clarke is proposing to detain suspects in their own homes without trial, the Commissioner believes that it would be better to allow intercept evidence to be used in court so that they can be tried.

"I have long been in favour of intercept evidence being used in court," he says. "In policing terms, it would make my job much easier. The simple reason why it would be better is that if we've got this, we can put it in front of a court and the court can weigh it up. At the moment, nobody can test it."

His concern with the proposals for house arrest is that Muslims will feel alienated from the police if they see officers searching everybody who goes into a suspected terrorist's house.

"The community will say to us, 'What are you doing with these people, why have you got these people under all of this, why don't you just tell us what it is you've got?' That's my position but, of course, there's a legitimate argument on the other side."

He is using diplomatic language, and I'm not sure there really is a legitimate argument on other side (save in the most extreme circumstances, but we're not facing those), but it is clear he's at odds with the government on this. It is worth noting that the civil liberties group "Liberty" has also come out in favour of accepting intercept evidence in court:
Backing Sir Ian's stance, Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said: "Judges rather than politicians should decide when to authorise phone tapping.

"However, if it is legitimate to eavesdrop on someone's private phone calls, it is nonsensical not to use relevant material in a criminal trial."

It really is strange that Britain and Ireland alone in Europe do not allow intercept evidence in court. The US does it, France does it, Israel does it, Canada does it. Their security agencies seem to be able to cope why not ours?

And isn't worth trying measures that will help bring people to trial rather than dispensing with a trial altogether, at a serious risk to individual liberty?

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Recent commentary on the House Arrest proposals

The Adam Smith Institute Blog says:

Sure, a liberal order must protect itself from those who would destroy liberalism itself. And maybe, at times, you have to act illiberally to do that. But you should still act according to the rule of law. If there is evidence, it should be produced in court. If the evidence is too sensitive to be made public, then it should be heard in private before qualified judges. At the moment we are jailing people, and soon we will be imprisoning them in their homes, on the say-so of a politician. That is scary.
I quite agree.

Tim Worstall, whose blog I recently added to my side bar, writes in an article entitled "Stalinism Returns":
The cornerstone of whatever freedoms we have managed to accumulate over the past millenium or so is the right to a trial by jury, with the associated presumption of innocence and Habeus Corpus. Everything else, and I do mean everything, that we enjoy, prosperity, freedoms of speech, association, property, are all reliant on this one base, and now they want to take that away from us.
This is an important point. The right to defend oneself against an accusation does form the basis upon which individual freedom lies. Without it, your freedom can be snuffed out at the whim of a politician.

Over at the Samizdata blog, they had this to say:
The Daily Telegraph appears to blame the Human Rights Act, noting that this decision is ostensibly being taken because the Law Lords said that it was illegal to empower the Home Secretary only to detain foreigners arbitrarily. This view is advanced notwithstanding Lord Hoffman's ditcta that applying such a equally rule to British citizens is no more defensible. But it is an absurd idea that such unlimited arbitrary power of arrest and detention is something the government reluctantly finds has been thrust upon it.
I agree that the claim the Human Rights Act is to blame is flawed -- the new measures are just as much a breach of human rights as the old -- and that the image of a government reluctantly forced to consider these measures is absurd. The government has been attacking civil liberties, in all sorts of legislation -- not just anti-terrorism legislation -- for years, and started this well before 9/11. They haven't tried obvious measures that might allow more prosecutions of suspected terrorists such as using intercept evidence in court (as almost every other developed country, including Israel with its long experience of terrorism does). It seems to me that, far too often, an attack on civil liberties is this government's first resort when faced with a problem. This is a government addicted to executive power.

The excellent blog comments:

The plan seems to be to allow a "whole range" of measures under a regime of Control Orders which could include house arrest, electronic tagging, denial of telephony or internet access, denial of association with some as yet unspecified people etc., all without actully having to present any evidence to a court. The whole point of having to go through a legal court procedure is precisely so that politicians and faceless petty officials cannot impose ever changing Kafakaesque rules and regulations which cannot be challenged by the defendant.

The 60th Anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp brings to mind the quotation from Pastor Martin Niemoller, who was locked up in the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps:

"First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me."

How can this Labour Government introduce such a fundamental attack on the the principle of Habeas Corpus ? The end does not justify the means.

Finally some further comments of my own. There has been a steady, systematic attack on civil liberties going on in Britain now for many years, which started well before 9/11 and which has involved attacks across many areas of policy, not just crime or anti-terrorist policy. These proposals are the latest and most extreme yet.

It seems to me that each time a proposal to weaken civil liberties makes it into law without the government facing punishment from the electorate and without there being any other effective opposition or backlash, it provides encouragement for further attacks. Each new attack that passes by without an outcry/backlash from the population proves that the government can probably go yet further still and get away with it.

There is also another aspect of this that worries me. Each time civil liberties are successfully weakened and each time the executive acquires an arbitrary/draconian power over individuals, those who might abuse such powers are encouraged to press for more and given more opportunities to take power themselves.

It does not matter that the intent of the politicians may be benign, the above points will hold. This process is making Britain vulnerable to tyranny.

And here is my final point: If the government gets away with enacting these proposals without a serious backlash, it will demonstrate that even more draconian measures could be enacted before a backlash occurs.

Given how draconian these proposals are, that scares the hell out of me.

And remember there's already an enabling act ticking away on Britain's statute books!