Wednesday, August 10, 2005

U.K.: Proposed Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten Fundamental Rights

(New York, August 10, 2005) -- Counter-terrorism measures
presented by Prime Minister Tony Blair last week, coupled with
this week?s proposal for special anti-terrorism courts, are deeply
worrying, said Human Rights Watch. Some of the measures under
discussion appear to be in outright breach of the U.K.?s human
rights obligations and others are so ill-defined and overbroad that
they risk criminalizing valid forms of dissent and undermining
freedom of religion, said the group.

The proposed measures include the deportation of foreigners
deemed "extremist" to places where they might be at risk of
torture; a new offence criminalizing speech that amounts to
"indirect incitement," including speech that justifies or glorifies
terrorism; extended time periods for pre-trial detention without
charge; and the closure of places of worship used to "foment
extremism." A proposal is also under consideration to establish
special anti-terrorism courts with some proceedings held in secret,
court-appointed advocates to represent a suspect, and no access to
evidence by the suspect.

"The U.K. government must protect the public from acts of
terrorism," said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights
Watch?s Europe and Central Asia division. "But the government
assumes that the public and the courts will readily accept measures
that could implicate the U.K. in torture, arbitrary detention, unfair
trials, and stripping people of their right to voice dissenting
opinions and practice their religion. The authorities are grasping at
straws, instead of setting a rational and effective course that
provides security and protects rights at the same time."

Deporting a person to risk of torture violates U.K. and international
law. The prohibition is absolute and permits no exceptions, even
on national security grounds. The government has said it will seek
"diplomatic assurances" from governments in countries where
torture is practiced to effect such transfers. In a June 23 letter to
Prime Minister Blair, Human Rights Watch warned that experience
has shown that diplomatic assurances from regimes where torture
is routine do not provide an effective safeguard against such abuse.
Blair has said that, "should legal obstacles arise," he will seek to
amend the U.K. Human Rights Act to accommodate such transfers.
The former home secretary David Blunkett has publicly warned
judges "in the strongest terms" that the government would not
tolerate any judicial attempt to overturn the new anti-terrorist
measures outlined last week.

"A human rights act amended to permit complicity in torture
makes a mockery of the very notion of rights protection," said
Cartner. "The threat of terrorism does not give senior politicians
carte blanche to substitute their views for the rule of law. It would
appear that the government has forgotten the very values it says it
is fighting for."

The proposed measures also call for the criminalization of some
forms of speech, including "justifying or glorifying terrorism" and
the expression of "extreme views that are in conflict with the
U.K.?s culture of tolerance," whether uttered or penned in the U.K.
or abroad. The government has proposed that persons within the
U.K. would be subject to deportation for such a speech offense and
those seeking access to the country would be excluded from entry
if their speech was deemed to pose a threat to national security,
public order, or the U.K.?s relations with a third country. Such
vague definitions of prohibited speech raise serious concerns that
the measure is overbroad and could criminalize valid dissent.
Moreover, the absence of a geographical limit would make it
extremely difficult to draw a link between offending speech and
any violence suspected of having resulted from it outside the U.K.

"As it stands, this speech offense casts an unacceptably broad net,"
said Cartner. "There must be a link between words that incite and
acts of violence for speech to be criminal. The government risks
choking free expression."

The proposal to establish special anti-terrorism courts raises
serious concerns about the erosion of fundamental fair trial
standards, including access to counsel and evidence, and arbitrary
detention. Security-cleared "special advocates" could hear
evidence against the accused in closed hearings, but would not be
able to reveal any of that evidence to the accused or to his or her
chosen counsel. A single judge would decide whether and how
long a person could be held in preventive detention without charge
or trial based on the evidence.

"The U.K. government has already been brought to book for its
indefinite detention regime," said Cartner. "Secret hearings, based
on secret evidence, with little access to effective counsel harken
back to the Belmarsh debacle. Hasn?t the British government
learned a lesson?"

Other proposals that implicate fundamental human rights
protections include a new power to order the closure of a place of
worship used as a "centre for fomenting extremism" and the
exclusion of certain Muslim clerics outside the U.K. who are
deemed "not suitable to preach" and who will be excluded from
the U.K. in the future. These proposals implicate the freedom to
manifest one?s religion or beliefs in worship, practice, or teaching.
The U.K. government can only impose limits on such rights in
very narrow circumstances prescribed by international law.
Collective punishment is not only illegal, but also particularly
divisive in the current climate. The government should take into
consideration the profoundly negative impact that such measures
could have on the affected communities.

"The punishment of an entire community is not the answer. If there
is evidence that a person has committed a crime, specific charges
should be brought against him or her," said Cartner. "The closure
of mosques or other houses of worship could be perceived as
labeling an entire community as somehow involved in terrorism.
This is hardly the way to inspire confidence in certain
communities, the Muslim community in particular."

A consultation paper on the deportation and exclusion measures is
currently open for public review and comment. Draft proposals
reflecting all the measures are scheduled to be presented to
parliament in September.

To view this document on the Human Rights Watch web site,
please visit: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/08/10/uk11620.htm

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