Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Brown on Terror

Brown appears more committed to civil liberties than Blair. Appearances can be deceptive.

By Liam Bailey

Tony Blair's successor as British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown announced Jun. 3 his intention to strengthen counter-terrorism measures in the U.K. The third time the Labour party has done so since 9/11 and 7/7. Brown also pledged to increase parliamentary accountability to ensure civil liberties are upheld under the new laws. It remains to be seen whether Brown's rhetoric of maintaining civil liberties is anymore than a cover for more authoritarianism. As Blair's closest aide throughout most of his premiership it is likely Brown supported Blair's terror laws, which were often thought to be slowly but surely eroding civil liberties, so we could be in for more of the same.

However, whereas I thought Blair was turning the U.K. into a police state targeting Muslims and driving so called moderate Muslims into extremism, because Brown seems as eager to uphold civil liberties of the British way as he is to tighten measures to stop terrorism, I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

I am in support of most of Brown's ideas: the use of phone-tap evidence in court, allowing police to continue questioning terror suspects after they have been charged, and allowing judges to consider involvement in terrorist activities as an aggravating factor when adjudicating other crimes. Blair rejected the use of phone-tap evidence in court on advice from security services, who feared it would jeopardize their secretive methods for gathering intelligence. Brown plans to look into ways it can be used without revealing sources to the public.

Where I am against Browns policy is his regurgitating Blair's most controversial proposal that resulted in his first parliamentary defeat, extending the period of without charge detention from 28 to 90 days.

28 days detention without charge is as long as anywhere else in the free world. According to human rights groups any longer is tantamount to internment. It is claimed that the 90 day detention is needed in light of how technology can hide evidence of terrorist activities, i.e. to gain access to encrypted hard-drives and data storage devices etc. But British law states innocent until proven guilty, so, until any evidence is retrieved proving they are guilty of something, these prisoners are innocent and should be tagged and released after 28 days and their hard-ware kept.

A tag is linked to a satellite system and alerts authorities if you aren't in or around your home for a certain time every day. That way if or when the data is recovered the people could be re-arrested. 90 days detention without charge is too likely to be abused.

When Blair was defeated on the 90 day proposal, it was opposed by the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and some Labour back-benchers. Constitutional Affairs Minister and deputy Labour leadership candidate Harriet Harman thinks that this time it will be different, that the house will support Brown's measures -- including 90 days detention -- if Brown can make a good case that the measures are necessary. She said on BBC One's Sunday AM:

"I don't think there will be a huge problem if there is a proper debate about it -- if evidence is brought forward about why current powers are inadequate and what the safeguards will be." Her sentiments of support for the new proposals were echoed by the other deputy leadership candidates, Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears and Peter Hain.

Conservative sources say there is no new evidence to support the need for longer detention. Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesman Simon Hughes warned Mr Brown that he will have a fight on his hands if he attempts to increase detention without charge period for terror suspects. In an attempt to sweeten the proposal Mr Brown has insisted he will ensure a judicial review of extended detentions is undertaken every 7 days. It is difficult to predict whether that will counteract the level of opposition to the plan.

Apparently Brown is to put the phone-tap proposal to the cross-party Privy Council for discussion, which is honouring his pledge to make the government more open and accountable on its new course. Lord Carlisle, the government's independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation welcomed Brown's proposals, saying:

"I do think it is time for the political parties to get together and to try to reach a consensus with the government, so we can move forward on terrorism legislation on the basis of fitness for purpose, rather than having a hot political debate about these desperately difficult and important matters."

What detracts from this is the fact that Brown first released word of his proposals to the Sunday papers instead of the House of Commons. And just five days before Home Secretary John Reid was due to present his terrorism measures to the house, throwing any idea of even party consensus on dealing with the terror threat out the window -- let alone cross-party consensus. This also suggested Brown does intend to be authoritarian in his leadership and his terrorism measures -- it's my way or no way.

The new proposals are in response to three terror suspects who had been issued control orders under the old legislation absconding. However I feel suggesting 90 days detention is necessary because of that is like sending a bear to catch a mouse. I see no reason why the tags I spoke of above can't be used to strengthen existing control orders. Brown's leap to Blair's 90 day detention plan backs-up claims that he was staunchly behind Blair's legislation and the absconders simply gave him the leverage to revive the defeated proposal.

So, overall Brown's latest release was much like his vision for his premiership when Blair steps down, the new measures for terrorism are different than Blair's in slight ways, but on the whole I'd say we can expect more of the same.

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