Monday, July 16, 2007

A global war on rights

The global “war on terror” has truly become the global war of terror against people’s human rights. In Australia, a terror suspect freed on bail is immediately held on spurious immigration charges; in Britain, a senior police officer calls for indefinite detention of suspects; in Germany, the interior minister suggests target killing of terror suspects; in the Philippines, new anti-terror laws come into force today. This morning, normally hard-bitten Australian journalists were shocked when a doctor, Mohamed Haneef, who was released on A$10,000 bail was immediately taken into detention in Brisbane on the orders of immigration minister Kevin Andrews. The minister said he was satisfied that Haneef had failed the “character test” required under immigration regulations. In an often heated exchange, Andrews was asked: "What chances does this fellow have of gaining justice in this country when he faces criminal charges in one court, and in another place, in a sort of a Catch-22, a minister of the crown declares that he's a terrorist?" Another said: “Doesn't this go against the legal rule that we've established over a thousand years? That someone is innocent until proven guilty. You're pre-empting a judgment on his innocence."

Equally shocked was Stephen Estcourt, president of the Australian Bar Association, who said he could not believe the minister's action. "He can't do that," said Estcourt. He said the minister was "usurping the role of the court" to take action now. "Usually this sort of visa cancellation takes place after charges have been laid against someone and they’ve run their course and they've resulted in a penalty being imposed... I have not heard of this power being used pre-emptively in this way. It has got to be seen as a threat to the rule of law if a ministerial discretion is used to effectively reverse, or to reverse for practical purposes a decision of the court. And it's sophistry to say that one's got nothing to do with the other."

While the Howard government rides roughshod over the presumption of innocence, in Britain we are being softened up for an extension of the anti-terror laws by the Brown regime. Doing New Labour’s bidding is Ken Jones, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). He told The Observer that in some cases there was a need to hold terrorist suspects without charge for “as long as it takes”. Jones, a former chair of ACPO's counter-terrorism committee, said: “We are now arguing for judicially supervised detention for as long as it takes. We are up against the buffers on the 28-day limit. We understand people will be concerned and nervous, but we need to create a system with sufficient judicial checks and balances which holds people, but no longer than a day [more than] necessary. We need to go there [unlimited detention] and I think that politicians of all parties and the public have great faith in the judiciary to make sure that's used in the most proportionate way possible.”

This global assault on rights has little to do with fighting terrorism. As we have said before, no self-respecting terrorist is concerned about tighter laws and the threat of being held without trial, or even being tortured for that matter. The authoritarian clampdown will, in fact, encourage terrorists to believe that they have their targets on the run. Creating an atmosphere of permanent tension is, however, a more than useful way of justifying the power of the state over its citizens. And so much the better if it helps to silence dissent, and widen the net so that radical, political opponents are ensnared. All that is left is for Brown to bring Jones of ACPO into his government of “all the talents”.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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