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Cover story/The New Statesman
Martin Bright
Monday 27th February 2006

In a shocking report on Britain, Amnesty International attacks the government for persecuting innocent people, tearing up our freedoms and undermining the judiciary. By Martin Bright

The British government stands accused. A special Amnesty International report on this country's human-rights record, details of which are published for the first time here, lays out a shocking catalogue of erosion of liberties and downright abuse, most of it in the name of the war against terror. A chilling picture emerges from its pages of a country panicked by a security nightmare and ripping up its own freedoms.

The language is stark: terrorist suspects find themselves "effectively persecuted" and held for years in "a Kafkaesque world" on the basis of secret accusations, with "devastating consequences" for them and their families. The conditions for some of them in Belmarsh Prison, Amnesty judges, amount to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment".

The anti-terror laws introduced by the government since 2001, it says, consistently employ "broad and vague terms" that leave "scope for political bias" and render our criminal justice system "neither fair, nor just, nor lawful". The latest round of security measures, moreover, threatens to "undermine the rights to freedom of expression, association, liberty and fair trial", while much recent legislation has "compromised the role of judges in upholding the rule of law".

Amnesty also asserts that the British government, by attempting to overturn the legal ban on the use of evidence obtained by torture, has gravely undermined the worldwide struggle against the torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

The publication of the 70-page report was preceded by meetings in recent weeks of Amnesty International's secretary general, Irene Khan, and its UK director, Kate Allen, with both the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Not since the worst days of official abuses during the Northern Ireland Troubles in the 1970s has an Amnesty report on Britain been preceded by such high-level contact.

Through the whole document runs a note of deep disappointment, summed up in the title, Human Rights: a broken promise. Labour came to power in 1997 pledging to transform the human-rights culture of this country. To this end it introduced the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, passed freedom-of-information legislation and introduced an "ethical" foreign policy. Yet, as Amnesty describes in page after page of case studies and summaries covering everything from extraordinary rendition to the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, present reality falls tragically short of the early ideals. A wholesale retreat from the human-rights high ground culminated, after the bombings of 7 July 2005, in Tony Blair's announcement that he would consider passing laws to undermine his own Human Rights Act.

Among Amnesty's gravest claims is that new legislation undermines the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive, in effect compromising the role of the courts. One high-profile instance is the government's "control orders", introduced after a long parliamentary battle last March. These give the Home Secretary the power to detain terrorist suspects under house arrest, on the evidence of the intelligence services, without passing through the usual process of arrest, charge and criminal trial. Although opposition parties secured a degree of judicial oversight of the process, Amnesty still condemns the orders as summary justice.

It also warns that a second piece of legislation, introduced last year, has even wider implications. The Inquiries Act 2005, passed without fanfare on the last day of parliamentary business before the general election, sets out how judicial inquiries into government action are carried out. Amnesty says that by giving de facto control of such inquiries to ministers, the act represents "an attack against the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary".

The government will have increased power to lay down the terms of reference of inquiries. The new act makes no distinction between those led by a lay chair, such as Sir Alan Budd's 2004 inquiry into the David Blunkett affair, and those headed by a judge, such as Lord Hutton's inquiry into the use of intelligence before the Iraq war. It also extends ministerial control even to full judicial inquiries, which have the power to oblige witnesses to give evidence under oath. Ministers will even be able to dismiss members of an inquiry panel, impose restrictions on public access to the inquiry, and decide whether the report inquiry is published.

Lord Saville of Newdigate, chair of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which has full judicial status, has said that the Inquiries Act "makes a very serious inroad into the independence of any inquiry; and is likely to damage or destroy public confidence in the inquiry and its findings". Lord Saville also said that he would not be prepared to serve on the panel of any future inquiry held under the terms of the new legislation.

The credibility of the new act will be tested by the inquiry the government intends to establish into the murder of the human-rights lawyer Pat Finucane, shot by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989. Finucane's family has called on judges not to co-operate with any inquiry carried out under the terms of the Inquiries Act. The Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, insists that no inquiry will take place outside the terms of the legislation. Justice Peter Cory, a former Canadian Supreme Court judge appointed by the British and Irish governments to look at a number of alleged extrajudicial killings in Northern Ireland, has said he thinks the act "would make a meaningful inquiry impossible . . . For example, the minister, the actions of whose ministry were to be reviewed by the public inquiry, would have the authority to thwart the efforts of the inquiry at every step. It really creates an intolerable, Alice in Wonderland situation."

Amnesty believes that the latest attacks by the British government on human rights are sending a deeply negative message around the world that makes it increasingly difficult for campaigners to demand that other regimes meet basic human-rights standards.

One area of concern is the vagueness of much recent legislation. The government's definition of the word "terrorism" itself is subjective and "lends itself to abusive police practices", the report says. Amnesty also condemns the lack of precision in listed offences such as having "links" with a member of an "international terrorist group".

The report does not hesitate to describe detention without trial in this country as internment, and points to the "disturbing echo" of the counter-productive policies for 1970s Northern Ireland. Britain is also breaking international law in Iraq, it says, by its association with the internment of some 14,000 people.

On extraordinary rendition - switching prisoners to countries where they may be interrogated under torture - Amnesty notes that Jack Straw assured it only this month that no renditions were currently taking place through Britain; however, it expresses concern that the government has not denied involvement in past transfers.

Amnesty remains opposed on prin-ciple to the "memorandums of understanding" being negotiated with Arab-world states. These are designed to allow Britain to deport individuals to countries which are known to practise torture. Under such arrangements, the foreign government gives an undertaking not to abuse the prisoners being deported. Deals have already been struck with Libya, Jordan and Lebanon, but critics say there is no way of monitoring the process.

Given that the prohibition on torture is absolute under our international obligations, formal assurance can never be enough to guarantee that no risk of abuse remains. "What the UK government is doing is hugely destructive to international agreements," Kate Allen told the New Statesman. "If ministers decide to do a series of deals with other governments, what is to stop other countries doing the same?"

Allen said that Britain was fast losing its reputation as a champion of human rights around the world: "For the international Amnesty movement Britain has always been a fixed, reliable point. But now the international movement is turning its attention to the British government."

Read the full report at []

The charge sheet

- Four pieces of anti-terrorism legislation in five years have eroded civil liberties

- Foreign terror suspects held in prison without trial since December 2001 were subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

- "Control orders" introduced to detain terror suspects under house arrest breach right to a fair trial and undermine judiciary

- Dangerously vague new offences of "indirect incitement" and "glorification", introduced in the new Terrorism Bill, are open to abuse

- The government's legal fight to allow evidence obtained by cruelty to be admitted in court has undermined the international fight to outlaw torture

- "Memorandums of understanding" to deport suspects to countries known to practise torture unacceptable

- Concerns about CIA "rendition" flights not adequately addressed by ministers

- British citizens in Guantanamo Bay not given due protection from abuse or reparation for their suffering

- Inadequate investigation into alleged abuses by British troops in Iraq

- Inquiries Act 2005 hands over control of public inquiries to government ministers


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