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Crackdown on Civil Liberties in the UK: Roundtable Discussion on New Anti-Protest Laws, Extraordinary Rendition, Immigration Laws & Torture

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Shami Chakrabarti, an attorney and director of the British civil rights group Liberty, Milan Rai, of Justice Not Vengeance, and former diplomat Brian Barder discuss the state of civil liberties in Britain. [includes rush transcript]

“I don’t destroy civil liberties, I protect them”–that’s the title of an article by British Prime Minister Tony Blair published last month in the Observer newspaper. In it, Blair suggests that critics of recently-passed anti-terror measures do not understand the nature of crimes in the modern world. Blair writes “The question is not one of individual liberty versus the state but of which approach best guarantees most liberty for the largest number of people. In theory, traditional court processes and attitudes to civil liberties could work. But the modern world is different from the world for which these court processes were designed.” The prime minister concludes by saying “If the nature of the threat changes, so should our policies. That is not destroying our liberties, but protecting them.” Blair wrote the piece in defense of several sweeping anti-terror measures passed in the wake of the subway bombings of last July.

The measures include deportation and exclusion of foreigners who are accused of “condoning and inciting violence.” They also incorporate closing worship places used for “fomenting terrorism” and stripping people of their British nationality if proved acting against British interests. He is currently also fighting to pass an amendment through parliament that would making “glorification of terrorism” a crime.

Other issues at the forefront of national debate in Britain are a proposed new points-based immigration system as well as the introduction of a national identity card. Britain’s role in the CIA’s practice of “extraordinary rendition” is also coming under scrutiny. In Parliament, lawmakers are debating legislation that would grant the British government new authority to search any aircraft thought to be carrying terror suspects. Advocates of the proposed measure say the bill would help prevent British complicity in the practice of flying detainees to countries where they face torture. Just this week, government officials admitted CIA aircraft made at least 14 landings at two local airbases between October 2003 and May 2004.

Today we host a roundtable discussion on how these issues are being dealt with in Britain today.

  • Milan Rai, founding member of Voices in the Wilderness, formed in the mid-1990s to draw attention to the effects of the US-British led economic sanctions on Iraq. He is currently coordinating the group Justice Not Vengeance. Milan Rai is also the first person charged with “organizing an unauthorized demonstration” under the new “Serious Organized Crime and Policing Act.” Rai and another protester were arrested at an anti-war demonstration in London last year as they read out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq. He is also the author of “7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War” and “Regime Unchanged.”
  • Shami Chakrabarti, an attorney and director of the British civil rights group Liberty. She sits on the Advisory Board of the British Institute of Human Rights and the Executive Committee of the Administrative Law Bar Association.
  • Brian Barder, retired British diplomat with decades of experience in government service at home and abroad. His posts include serving as British ambassador to Ethiopia, Poland and the Republic of Benin. He has also served stints as British High Commissioner in Nigeria and Australia. In January 2004, Brian Barder resigned from the Special Immigration Appeals Commission over his objection to laws allowing the indefinite detention and deportation of terrorist suspects without trial.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we host a roundtable discussion on these issues, how they’re being dealt with in Britain today. We’re joined by Brian Barder. He is a retired British diplomat with decades of experience in government service at home and abroad. His posts include serving as British ambassador to Ethiopia, Poland and the Republic of Benin. He’s also served stints as the British High Commissioner in Nigeria and in Australia. In January 2004, Brian Barder resigned from the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, over his objection to laws allowing the indefinite detention and deportation of people without trial.

We’re also joined by Shami Chakrabarti. She’s an attorney and director of the British civil rights group, Liberty. She sits on the advisory board of the British Institute of Human Rights and the Executive Committee of the Administrative Law Bar Association.

And we’re joined also by Milan Rai, who has also been in our studio in New York. He’s founding member of Voices in the Wilderness, formed in the mid-1990s, to draw attention to the effects of the U.S.-British led economic sanctions on Iraq. He’s currently coordinating the group Justice Not Vengeance. And Milan Rai is the first person charged with, quote, “organizing an unauthorized demonstration” under the new “Serious Organized Crime and Policing Act.” Milan Rai and another protester were arrested in an anti-war protest in London last year, as they read out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq. He’s the author of 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War. His previous book is Regime Unchanged.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Milan Rai, let’s begin with you, what happened?

MILAN RAI: Well, last October, as part of an international effort to mark the anniversary of the Lancet estimate that 100,000 people had died in Iraq, Maya Evans and I were opposite Downing Street, reading out the names of people who had died in the conflict so far. Maya was reading out the names of British soldiers who had died, and I was reading out the names of Iraqi civilians who were recorded as having died violently because of the occupation, invasion and occupation.

And we were arrested. And Maya was speedily tried for participating in an unauthorized demonstration. And they took quite a while to decide, but eventually they charged me with organizing this unauthorized demonstration. And, at first, we thought that the maximum penalty was 51 weeks imprisonment. That’s what the police had told me when I was arranging this demonstration. But next week, I’m going on trial, and it turns out the maximum penalty is three months in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s your defense?

MILAN RAI: Well, there’s a general defense being run that this is a violation of freedom of expression. And so, there’s a whole bunch of cases, which are appealing. And if the case goes against me, then I’ll be joining that appeal on that basis, on the basis that the European Convention on Human Rights is being violated.

AMY GOODMAN: Shami Chakrabarti, it’s your organization, that is, Liberty, that is representing Milan. Can you put this in the broader context of the new anti-terrorism laws?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Absolutely. Well, I’m sure, and I hope that many of your viewers and listeners will be chilled at the notion that in Britain, which has always been very proud of its democratic tradition, that it’s possible to be prosecuted for reading out the names of dead people in a war as part of an unauthorized protest. The notion of authorized protest, the notion of having to apply to the police for permission to protest here in Westminster ought to chill, I think, any Democrat in the United States or in Britain.

And I would say — I mean, that piece of legislation is not actually an anti-terror measure, so I want you to remember, this isn’t just about the atrocity here in London last summer or even about the war on terror that came after the appalling events in New York on the 11th of September. This is, I’m afraid, a broader, deeper picture here in Britain, a real authoritarian creep — perhaps an authoritarian march is a better metaphor — that’s been going on in British politics for at least ten, possibly fifteen years.

And it’s possibly best encapsulated in the sorts of remarks that you read out from our prime minister. He’s written many other pieces in a similar vein, he’s made speeches, where he essentially says, “This is year naught. Modernity and the challenges facing the world today, not just anti-terror challenges, but binge drinking and anti-social behavior in our housing estates, and so on, all suggest that the core principles of the right to a fair trial, for example,” which is a great British tradition exported around the world, “the presumption of innocence, rights to expression and protest, all of these things really need to go by the by now, and fundamental rights as we’ve understood them in the post-war period really need to be swept away. The rules of the game are changing,” is what he said on August the 4th, in the wake of the atrocity.

And this is a very dangerous approach, because we don’t have the post-war universal rights and freedoms framework to guide us. One asks, “Where is democracy?” One also asks, “What distinguishes us if we, for example, engage in torture? What distinguishes us from dictatorships or indeed from terrorists?”

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Barder, why did you quit your position? Explain the commission you served on.

BRIAN BARDER: Well, SIAC, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, was set up originally to hear appeals against deportation orders, where the foreigner, a non-British citizen, was ordered to be deported on national security grounds by the Home Secretary, or Interior Minister, as it were. Such people could be deported if they seemed to be a threat to national security, seemed to government to be a threat to national security, without any form of trial. And that goes back actually a long way. But under human rights convention principles, it was accepted that there should be a proper appeal against these orders, and SIAC was set up to hear such appeals. This was not a trial, because these people were not accused of anything specific. It was a question of deciding whether the Home Secretary had proper grounds for deporting this particular foreigner.

Well, I sat on the first of SIAC’s cases, which we allowed. I mean, we found against the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary appealed. It went to the Court of Appeal in the House of Lords eventually. It took over two years. And eventually, the higher courts overturned what we had decided on points of law, not on points of fact, because there was no appeal on fact. But they found against SIAC on points of law, which, in my view, reduced SIAC to virtual impotence. It made it very, very difficult for SIAC, in future cases, to question the Home Secretary’s judgment, so that was one reason.

The other thing was that the government decided in the wake of 9/11 to take powers to imprison foreigners that they wanted to deport, but could not deport, because there was no country where they could safely be sent to, where they wouldn’t risk being tortured or even killed. This involved, of course, imprisoning people indefinitely and without trial. And SIAC was — had its functions extended to hear appeals against these detentions. I decided that I couldn’t be involved in such procedures, because it seemed to me that indefinite detention without trial was simply something that was completely contrary to our longstanding traditions and quite wrong. So, I resigned.

In fact, actually, the regime of detention without trial was later, much later, struck down by the House of Lords, which is our highest court of appeal. The lords in the House of Lords decided that this was contrary to the Human Rights Act and the human rights convention, European Convention on Human Rights, and that was changed, but, in fact, the government then introduced in some ways even more draconian legislation to get around the ruling of the House of Lords. I mean, now, I have a regime of control orders, under which anybody, not just foreigners, not just people awaiting deportation or who can’t be deported, but anybody who is regarded by the government as a potential threat can be — can have their career wrecked, can be subjected to what amounts almost to house arrest, just on the say-so of the government. And this seems to me — and this applies to British citizens, as well as foreigners. So it seemed to me that we had gone out of the frying pan into the fire. And things have really got steadily worse since.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Barder, Shami Chakrabarti and Milan Rai, we have to break. When we come back, I want to ask you if 7/7, for you, the bombings here last summer, changed the country like 9/11 did for people in the United States, and then, specifically, how many immigrants are being detained and what the landscape is today.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests, again, Brian Barder, who quit immigration commission over the policies around detention and deportation; Shami Chakrabarti is with us, who heads up the human rights group, Liberty; and Milan Rai, who is going to be tried next week and is author of 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War. Let’s go to 7/7 and what happened on that day and what happened after, and particularly as it relates to Muslims.

MILAN RAI: Well, earlier we were talking about the civil rights environment in Britain, how it’s deteriorated, and Shami Chakrabarti was talking about the larger environment of authoritarian government, but what happened immediately after 7/7, in my view, is that the government was very much on the defensive, because immediately people put the bombings in this country together with British foreign policy and Britain’s alignment with the United States. And we saw polls in the Guardian, in the Daily Mirror, which showed over 60% — over 80% of people in this country saying, “There is some connection between what the government’s doing abroad and the threat of terror in this country.”

And my view is that what happened was that the government was under so much pressure, where it was trying to deny that connection, which was obvious to the majority of people in this country, that I think that one of the reasons why Tony Blair made his announcements, just before going off on his August holiday a month after the 7/7 bombings, why he made that particular raft of proposals, and he did it in the way that he did — well, he didn’t really consult with the Home Office. He suddenly said, “We’re going to do all these very repressive things.” And suddenly the conversation changed.

So, up until that point, he had been pressed harder and harder and harder: Is there not a connection between your foreign policy, and the risk of terror in this country? And he had been slowly giving a little bit of ground until, at the end of July, he was having to say, “Well, they make some use — you know, the terrorists make some use of what’s happening in Afghanistan and Iraq to recruit.” And he was slowly giving ground, and there was — he was soon going to come to a point where he was going to have to admit that there was a connection between what he was doing with British foreign policy and what the British people were having to face in this country.

And one of the things which spurred me to write this book is that, in fact, the Home Office and Foreign Office’s own internal analysis, which we know from leaked documents a year earlier, was that British foreign policy was at the top of the list in the causes of growing extremism amongst young Muslims in Britain today. So that was the government’s own analysis.

But, anyway, what happened at the beginning of August was, the conversation changed, and since then, the government has been spared a lot of pressure on the connection between British foreign policy and alignment with the U.S., and what’s been happening in Muslim communities here. The anger that people feel at what is happening to Muslims around the world and, in particular, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that topic has been sidelined, and instead the government has been fielding these human rights debates instead. And I think for Tony Blair, in a way, even though he’s had a lot of heat, especially from people who care a lot about human rights, in a way, that’s been a welcome distraction from the thing which is going to wreck his reputation in history, and that’s what he’s trying to protect right now, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: Shami Chakrabarti, you also deal a lot with what has been called extraordinary rendition, what other people call kidnapping. Can you talk about this latest news of the British government having to admit there were at least, what, 14 flights at two British military bases? What is happening with Britain’s part in this?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Well, what’s happening is that there is a lot — on the one hand, a lot of circumstantial evidence, and now hard evidence, of C.I.A. flights coming through the U.K. That’s been building over time, exposed principally, initially, by journalists on papers like the Guardian and other investigative journalists, whom we’ve been working closely with. That’s happened on — that’s one part of the picture. All of these flights coming through, accompanied by statements, very open statements, by Dr. Rice in your country and other people on behalf of the American government, that renditions happens, and it saves lives.

Of course, this then begs the question about why does rendition save lives. And our understanding — and you’re right, I think, to call it kidnap, that’s — some of this debate is actually colored by an abuse of language, or the sanitization of language; we don’t say “kidnap” or “torture flights,” we say “rendition.” We didn’t initially say “internment” about the Belmarsh indefinite detention, the government called it “immigration detention.” So language is important. So, on the one hand, we have the United States’ administration telling us that it saves lives somehow to take people to certain other countries for interrogation.

Now, why would you do that if it wasn’t quite obviously to subject people to an interrogation regime that would not comply with whatever your prevailing constitutional human rights standard is in Britain or the United States? So that’s the first thing, that we see this circumstantial evidence hardening of these planes coming through the U.K. And then we see groups like my own, Liberty, and other people in this country who are a little concerned about the way in which we’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States, not that we shouldn’t all condemn terrorism, but whether we have been right to adopt certain policies, saying: What did the British government know about this? And what is the British government going to do about this if we are — if this special relationship means anything to us, it should be about great democracies in the world, holding fast to their democratic and human rights standards.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re calling for legislation that would outlaw these —

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’re doing various things. Firstly, on the diplomatic front, we are attempting to shame our government into being slightly more rigorous in its questioning if its closest ally about what on earth has actually been going on in our name through British airspace, at British airports, and so on. There’s been a bit of a “see no evil” approach on the part of the British government. So that’s the diplomatic, political approach.

Secondly we have demanded that chief constables, chief police officers in this country, investigate these allegations, these increasing allegations and this evidence that English criminal offenses have been perpetrated here, if people have been kidnapped and taken for torture. There would be issues of English and British criminal law that have been breached potentially by the C.I.A. and whoever else.

And, thirdly, just this week we’ve drafted an amendment to our Civil Aviation Act, which has been taken up by a member of the House of Lords, Baroness D’Souza, creating an explicit duty on our government to demand that suspected flights land, and secondly, to ensure that British police officers and immigration officers and customs officers are able to inspect such flights.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian Barder, you were a long-time British diplomat. You joined with scores of others in sending a letter to Prime Minister Blair opposing Middle East policy. Explain, please.

BRIAN BARDER: Well, we, 52 of us, mostly former ambassadors or high commissioners — high commissioners are what we call ambassadors in other Commonwealth countries, so they’re the same, effectively, as ambassadors — fifty-two of us signed an open letter to Tony Blair, mainly about Iraq, questioning the basis on which we had gone to war with the United States in Iraq and calling for much better administration of the occupation regime, with far greater attention to human rights and also to the behavior of the troops in Iraq, but also questioning British and American policy towards Israel and Palestine. This came very soon after President Bush and Tony Blair had apparently given the green light, in effect, to Israel to proceed unilaterally with redrawing the borders and so on, where we believed that it ought to be done multilaterally, in discussion, in negotiation with the Palestinians and all the other parties involved. We never got a satisfactory answer to the letter, but it created quite a stir.

AMY GOODMAN: You also wrote a letter to the Guardian saying, “New Labour fails torture test.”

BRIAN BARDER: Yes. I think the acquiescence in the use of torture by our major ally and our senior ally, by our government, the absence really of serious condemnation of what’s been going on, especially in Guantanamo, and also, of course, in Abu Ghraib, has really been extremely regrettable, and I think it’s a great pity that our ministers haven’t spoken up more clearly. They have actually condemned the Guantanamo regime, but the strongest word that Tony Blair has so far been able to use of it, is that it’s an “anomaly.” Well, that’s fairly quiet.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: You’ve heard of English understatement —

BRIAN BARDER: Yes, that’s right.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: — but that really takes it to —- -—

BRIAN BARDER: Takes the biscuit, really.

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: — to new extremes.

BRIAN BARDER: Yeah. I mean, I think it is worth saying that the kind of erosions of our civil liberties that Shami and Milan have been talking about haven’t gone nearly as far as what’s been happening in the United States or under United States supervision, as it were. And equally, I think it’s important —

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

BRIAN BARDER: OK. And also, it’s important to say that 7/7 in Britain was nothing like as traumatic as 9/11. We have a longer experience of terrorism in Britain than you do.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Brian Barder, Shami Chakrabarti, and Milan Rai, author of 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War, I want to thank you for being with us.

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