The counter-terrorism and sentencing bill will increase repression

By Saleh Mamon

In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Home Secretary tabled a new draft Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill on 20th May, at a time when any serious parliamentary or civil society scrutiny is well-nigh impossible.

This is the eighth Counter-Terrorism Bill following the Terrorism Bill of 2000 which made emergency powers permanent and became the basis for subsequent bills which were put in after significant terror attacks.

The Bill follows in the wake of the terror attacks at Fishmongers Hall on 29th November 2019 and in Streatham on 2nd February 2020.  The draft bill claims to protect the public better by ensuring that serious and dangerous offenders are locked up longer, enabling more time for their disengagement and rehabilitation.  When outside custody, it aims to monitor and manage the risk posed by the offenders.

In all such terrorist incidents there were intelligence failures. Instead of tackling such failures which have happened too often, the government aims to ratchet up further repression.  The greatest risk is for innocent individuals to be caught up and their lives seriously torn apart by the powers in the bill.

A coalition of human right and community organisations fought the control orders introduced by the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2005. They were nothing short of indefinite house arrests without a fair trial and tore apart the lives of many innocent individuals.  The Act was repealed and replaced by the Terrorism Prevention and Investigative Measures (TPIMS) Act in 2011.

Although repressive in every way, TPIMs had a term limit of two years. The new bill removes the two year limit and hence makes TPIMs with annual renewal indefinite. Furthermore, it allows the government to relocate an individual to any place within the country, without due consideration of his or her family and community relationships. This is akin to internal exile used in the British colonies, where individuals were totally isolated.

TPIMs are imposed by the Home Secretary.  Previously the evidence for imposing these was subjected to ‘balance of probabilities’, a proof used in civilian law. That has been swept aside. They can now be imposed if there is a reasonable grounds of suspicion, which is an arbitrary judgment made by officials.

So, as with previous counter-terrorism measures, individuals suspected of non-violent extremism, who have committed no crime, could fall into the net without any recourse to a fair trial. Individuals who have not committed any crime at all would have their lives ripped apart by these measures.

Of special concern in the way that the bill widens its application to common law offences where determinations will have to be made whether each case has a ‘terrorist connection’.  Under this, whether a crime like stabbing is considered to be a ‘standard’ crime, a ‘gang-related’ crime or a ‘terror-related’ crime will leave it open to discriminatory decisions with the outcome likely to depend on whether the perpetrator is black or Muslim, respectively.

The bill defines a range of serious terrorist offences which intend to cause serious harm and introduces the Serious Terrorism Sentence for the most serious and dangerous terrorist offenders. This sentence carries a minimum of 14 years to be spent in custody, with an extended licence period of up to 25 years.

It also increases the maximum sentence that the court can impose for three terrorism offences (membership of a proscribed organisation, supporting a proscribed organisation, and attending a place used for terrorist training), from 10 to 14 years, properly reflecting the seriousness of this type of offending.

Proscription of political associations is already a serious issue for many British communities. The bill would have a chilling effect on the Kurdish community who have a long history of resistance against the authoritarian Turkish state. Their organisation, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), has been proscribed since 2001. The law outlaws political activity and organisation within the Kurdish community. The community members have never been involved in acts of terror in Britain. The recent Belgium Court judgement that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation but a party in conflict is notable. It is about time PKK was de-proscribed. Its continued proscription has always given the Turkish state an excuse to ratchet up repression and deny Kurds any of their political and human rights.

The Tamil community will be similarly intimidated. It is a community recovering from a genocide and defeat and is subjected to repression by the Sri Lankan state. The Basque, Somali, Baloch and Palestinian communities are in a similar situation with their main political organisations banned.

The truth that the government has not confronted is that for two decades its counter-terrorism strategy has failed.  We have seen sporadic terror attacks where critical intelligence has failed to pick them up. No level of repressive measures eroding civil liberties and the rule of law in the name of security has protected the public. The government has failed to recognise that its unjust wars and support for repressive regime has led to an increased threat of terrorism.

Lord Steyn’s critical observation when discussing the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 remains true in 2020:  “it is the first duty of Government to protect citizens from harm ….but it does not excuse the endless excesses and acts of lawlessness committed in the name of the war on terror…   Surely, objectively speaking, the Bill can be seen to be an attempt to lead the public to think that it is a serious attempt to improve security. It does nothing of the kind.”

Liberty, CAGE, CAMPACC and many other organisations and individuals from all backgrounds have come out to oppose this bill. It will not enhance public security. On the contrary, it will extend punishment without a fair trial. More powers for cops, spooks and judges are not in the interests of ordinary people—the bill must be opposed by everyone and every organisation which defend civil liberties and are fighting against the criminalisation of innocent civilians and vulnerable communities.