Tue, 28 Oct 2008

Deaths in custody & Jean Charles de Menezes inquest

Last Saturday was the tenth annual gathering of the families and friends of those who have died in custody in the UK. There was a silent march from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square. It stopped by Downing Street for families to put pictures and flowers by the gate to Downing Street, they weren't allowed inside and the flowers were checked by Police officers. The march was followed by some talks. I learnt that the last time a Police officer was convicted following a death in custody was for assault charges in 1971 for a death that occurred in 1969. Nearly fourty years ago. This was for the death of David Oluwale. A few years ago, the film Injustice, documented deaths in custody - mainly black deaths - over a six-year period (it doesn't seem to be available anymore unfortunately).

According to the United Families and Friends Campaign, 182 individuals have died in custody in the last twelve months. The image on the left (click it for a more readable pdf) lists 2,533 individuals who have died since 1969 in the care of the Police, prisons, secure psychiatric units and immigration detention centres. The list is not complete as more died in such circumstances whose name is not known. Inquest also maintains a table of unlawful killing verdicts and manslaughter prosecutions in prison and police custody or pursuits since 1990.

2553 deaths in custodyDeaths in custody demonstration

Several persons asked me what's happening to the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. It started on 2008-09-22 and is expected to last three months. The family maintains a website on the inquest, it includes a blog and directions if you want/can attend part of the inquest at the Oval. The Coroner also maintains its own website, remarkably it includes transcripts of all the open court proceedings. The transcripts tend to be around 200 pages per day, so it can be a bit daunting to go through though them. If you don't have the time to read any transcript in full, I'd recommend reading a few of the cross examinations by Michael Mansfield QC, representing the de Menezes family (search for 'Mansfield' in the transcripts). In addition to the press reports, UKLiberty runs a series of posts with very good summaries. I have been surprised by what seems to be a lack of common sense, which appear very unprofessional, such as not getting a detailed map of the location or for only a few officers to carry the picture of the suspect they were looking for. What I find worrying is for some officers, even now with three years of hindsight, to consider that nothing went wrong, that they didn't make any mistake, and it could happen again. For instance:

2008-10-01 transcripts:

MR Mansfield: On that basis, there is a real risk, then, it could happen again.
D/Su Boutcher: There is, sir, yes.

2008-10-06 transcripts:

MR Hilliard: [...] What went wrong?
DAC Dick: [...] If you ask me whether I think anybody did anything wrong or unreasonable on the operation, I don't think they did.

2008-10-07 transcripts:

Mr Mansfield: [...] In consequence of one officers' reply to this jury, I asked him bluntly whether he thought it could happen again and he said yes. Do you say the same?
DAC Dick: I am afraid, sir, I do believe that this or something like this could happen again. [...]

To end on a more positive note, it is fascinating to have the possibility (time being the main limiting factor here) to follow this inquest in such details. This level of openness and transparency is welcomed and appreciated.

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Tue, 14 Oct 2008

You can't judge a counter terrorism bill by its cover

You can’t assume the scope of a law from what the government promises or its title:

The Government used anti-terrorism powers to freeze an estimated £4 billion of British financial assets in Landsbanki, Icesave’s parent bank. A spokesman for the Treasury said that the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act was invoked as a “precautionary measure”. (The Times)

“I won’t try to hide my surprise and disappointment when it became clear that the British government enforced the laws on defence against terrorism against Icelandic companies in the UK. Laws that were indeed very controversial when they were passed because of the inherent possibility of being abused in alternative situations, not involving terrorism at all. Perhaps we have now witnessed how that controversy was warranted.”

“These measures, along with the statements of the British PM, with whom I have by the way had very friendly relations, coupled with his statements about the defaulting and possible national bankruptcy of Iceland, can in fact be interpreted as an assault against the interests of the Icelandic nation, bearing in mind the difference in size and power between these two nations,” said Haarde.

He added that despite the fact that the British government had acted on the assumption of right against the Icelandic government over collateral and settlement of some bank accounts, the initiative of the British ministers had been completely out of proportion with the issues.

“We neither can, nor will (Icelanders), accept being cast as terrorists by the British government. When I asked the British Minister of Finance, in our conversation if they were serious about the title they were giving us, he denied it. But acting in this fashion against a smaller nation of friends in times of trouble is neither proper nor ethical,” said Haarde. (IceNews)

As UK Liberty puts it: ‘Promises that a law will only be used against terrorists are worthless. What matters is what the legislation itself says. We have problems if legislators don’t understand how legislation works.’

The government promised that measures in the Counter Terrorism Bill 2008 such as further extending detention without charge to 42 days or having secret inquest would be used only exceptionally. Thanks to the Lords these measures have been dropped from this bill. These are positive news but there are still many other unjust proposals remaining in this bill. Here's a list, based on work by CAMPACC, of some of these proposals:

Post-charge questioning of ‘terror suspects’ – presumed guilty?
‘Terror suspects’ could be subjected to further questioning after a criminal charge, possibly right up to the trial date. Saying nothing could count against them at trial. At present, once charged one can refuse to answer till their trial, without this being interpreted as a sign of guilt or deception.
‘Terrorist connection’ would justify a heavier sentence
Judges could give people longer sentences for ‘ordinary’ offences if they had a ‘terrorism connection’. For example, public order offences like organising an unauthorised demonstration, if a speaker allegedly supports a banned ‘terrorist’ organisation.
Confiscation of property without trial
Convicted ‘terrorists’ could have their property confiscated – such as bank accounts, vehicles, computers or even a house – a punishment not just them for them but also for their families who may have no connection to the offence. The special procedure for doing this would not be a normal trial. It could involve secret evidence which the affected person would not be allowed to know. Any connections between the property and terrorism would only need to be shown ‘on the balance of probability’. Charities’ funds could be confiscated in the same way.
Extra punishment without trial beyond the original sentence
Convicted ‘terrorists’ could face a ban on foreign travel once released from jail. This would be done by a special order, not a trial. Those convicted could also face a requirement to tell the police where they go whenever they sleep away from home, in some cases for life.
New offence for volunteers of not giving information to police
It is already an offence under the 2001 terrorism law not to tell police of suspected terrorist activities if you find anything suspicious in the course of your employment. The 2008 Bill extends this to volunteer workers, for example in a youth project or charity. People might be over-suspicious and report imagined activities because they are afraid of being criminalised for concealment. They also might be deterred from volunteering in a charity that sends money to Afghanistan or Palestine, for example.
New offence of providing information about the armed forces
The Bill would make it an offence to seek or communicate information about the armed forces which could be useful to terrorism. This could apply to peace protestors at anti-war protests and to criminalise the collection of information on armed forces by investigative journalists, thus attacking free speech.

Another unjust proposal in the Counter Terrorism Bill is to covertly collect DNA samplings and retain DNA profiles in a ‘CT [counter terrorism] DNA database’ - distinct from the National DNA Database (NDNAD) and most likely illegal unless this Bill passes. (DNA profiles of innocents were retained on the NDNAD before it became lawful to do so.). Spy Blog commented in a post analysing the Lords debate on this section: ‘That is an extremely dangerous power, to covertly enter premises and steal a DNA sample, without the person's consent or knowledge, and then to analyse it, again without consent. This must only ever be done under the most exceptional circumstances, under the strictest, independent safeguards, and with provisions for correcting the inevitable mistakes, none of which exist in this Bill.’

Lord West recognises that such provision in the Counter Terrorism Bill is not intended to be restricted to counter terrorism:

[T]he provision applies to samples otherwise lawfully obtained in the interests of national security for the prevention/detection of crime, the investigation of an offence, the conduct of a prosecution or for purposes related to the identification of a deceased. Such latter material might include material obtained during a criminal investigation other than through the exercise of covert powers—for example, during a search, from a crime scene or lawfully provided by a body other than another law enforcement authority, perhaps from the intelligence services of another state. (TheyWorkForYou)

Measures buried in a bill will be used to the extent described in the text of the bill. Not all measures in a bill against terrorism have much effect to make us all safer from terrorist actions. More proposals remain to be removed from the Counter Terrorism Bill 2008.

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