On 28th July 2005, I was unlawfully arrested at Southwark tube station when attempting to take the tube after work to meet my wife. Chief Superintendent Wayne Chance, Metropolitan Police Service Borough Commander for Southwark, has eventually apologised to my wife and I for their actions and the trauma it caused us:
I would like to apologise on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service for the circumstances that arose on 28 July 2005 including your unlawful arrest, detention and search of your home. I appreciate this has had a deep and traumatic impact on your lives and I hope that the settlement in this case can bring some closure to this.
I shall ensure that the officers concerned are made aware of the impact of the events of that day and also the details of the settlement in this case.
We are happy to be able eventually to put this behind us.
Just over four years ago, I entered the tube station without looking at the police officers who were standing by the entrance. Two other men entered the station at the same time. My jacket was allegedly too warm for the season. I was carrying a backpack. While waiting for the tube, I looked at people coming on the platform, I played with my mobile phone, I took a piece of paper from inside my jacket.
The police found my behaviour suspicious and instigated a security alert. They surrounded me. They asked me to take off my backpack. They handcuffed me in the back. They closed and cordoned off the tube station. They stopped and searched me under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. They emptied my pockets. They loosened my belt. Explosive officers checked my backpack, gave the all clear and joked about my laptop. The handcuffs were taken off (for a few minutes) and some of the stuff I was carrying in my pockets was given back to me.
This should have been the end of the matter. Instead, an officer informed me “[I] was under arrest on suspicion of causing a Public Nuisance”. They then took me to Walworth police station. They processed me. They took photographs, DNA samples, fingerprints and palm prints. They searched our flat. They interviewed me. Nine hours later I was granted bail. One month later when I surrendered to custody, they said they have decided to take no further action. It takes a further month and half to get my possessions back. Three months after the arrest, the Police National Computer was still listing me as under arrest.
I was arrested for a made up offence most likely in order to justify their having closed the tube station. This unlawful arrest caused further unnecessary expense from public funds and considerable distress to my wife and I. Despite all the available evidence (bar CCTV footage in the station, which the police never seized), investigators from the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards failed to find that my arrest was unlawful: “there were 'reasonable grounds' to suspect an offence had been committed by Mr Mery and as such the arrest was both lawful and justified”. The intervention of a senior officer was required: “I disagree with that conclusion in respect of the arrest. I agree that the stop and search were lawful under that Act but I believe the arrest was unlawful.” That was still not enough for the police to apologise. The Independent Police Complaint Commission was of no help as “[i]t is not within the remit of the IPCC to direct the Metropolitan Police Service to issue a formal and public apology for their action”.
The police apology will be shown to the officers who were involved in my arrest and the subsequent search of our flat. Being aware of the long term impact of their actions will encourage police officers to realise that arresting innocents is not the only option available to them. Letting innocents go free and safe must be possible and has to be the preferred option. I hope that lessons will be learnt and that in future when mistakes are made they will be acknowledged immediately.
My DNA samples were destroyed and my DNA profile, fingerprints, palm prints and PNC record deleted two years ago. The litigation files maintained by the Directorate of Legal Services and the investigation files compiled by the Directorate of Professional Standards will be retained for a further six years, after which there should be no trace at the Metropolitan Police Service about this innocent.
We are very grateful to Sarah McSherry, Head of Actions
against the Police Department at Christian Khan, for her formidable
support in achieving this result. We would also like to take this
opportunity to express our thanks to the many individuals who
encouraged us in this long fight for our rights.
The full saga is published at gizmonaut.net/suspect.
A few posts on this blog featured how more than sixty years ago surrealist texts thought to be coded messages of anarchists, and more recently kids' scribbles and drawings, doodles and bad poetry have been construed as potential evidence:
David Edgar's article on CiF, The misreading of fiction as fact makes suspects of us all, adds a few more examples to this list and suggests these show a failure to distinguish between fantasy and reality:
Behind these attacks on works of art is the idea that what artists do is an essentially trivial pursuit, easily trumped by considerations of public security, health and safety, or victims' rights. Art isn't trivial, but it's true that no artists have lost their liberty or their reputation by being taken literally. What's happening now is that an erroneous misreading of fiction as fact is being applied in places where artistic integrity cannot be readily employed as a defence, potentially criminalising anybody who indulges in violent or sexual fantasy (in other words, all of us).
What's significant about the recent attempted prosecutions is not just that they are directed at schoolchildren, civil servants and shop assistants rather than people who fantasise for a living. Often brought under serious legislation attracting serious penalties, they have had real and deleterious effects on people's lives.
Arguing that eight email messages taken out of context are thought to be coded messages is among the few public evidence used to hold young Pakistani student as category A prisoners. The ill defined concept of public or national security is also invoked to justify the use of secret evidence in judicial proceedings.
Be literal, be safe!
This past week-end, as many other households, I received a letter from my local council's Electoral Services Manager. It was accompanied by a Voter Registration Form and a freepost envelope. I considered ignoring it, but soon realised that this was not option. It also became the occasion to shatter a few misunderstandings I had about UK voting registration.
Here's the cover letter interspersed with my comments:
Re: Voter Registration Form Reminder
In early August, we sent you a voter registration form. We've not received your completed form yet, so please find enclosed another form, which you must complete and send to us. It's easy to fill in. Just write the names of all eligible voters living in your household or let us know if there's no one eligible living there. Simply send it back to us in the freepost envelope provided.
I never received this earlier form. I'm glad to learn it's "easy", "simply", peasy!
First interesting technicality is "eligible voters". To vote in UK Parliamentary general elections, one needs to be British, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, or a qualifying Commonwealth citizen (with leave to enter or remain in the UK, or not requiring such leave); while to vote in local elections, one needs to be British, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, a citizen of a European Union country or a qualifying Commonwealth citizen. Long term residents, even with an indefinite leave to remain, who are not from the Commonwealth or the EU, never get the right to vote for local elections. This is discriminatory.
Here's why you need to fill and send us your voter registration form:
1. Make sure you have the right to make your voice heard in next year's elections. The information on voter registration forms is used to produce a Register of Electors (or Voters List), published on 1 December each year. To be eligible to vote in the next local and general elections, you must be on the register. You do not have to vote but to have the choice, you must return your form.
This is clear, I only need to return the form and register on the voters list, if I want to engage in the democratic process and use my optional right to vote. Unfortunately, as we'll see later, this will be shown to be incorrect.
2. The Register of Electors is also used by credit reference agencies. If your name's not on the register, you could find that you are unable to obtain credit for a mortgage, mobile phone, credit card or loan.
A reminder that in the UK, it is impossible to register only to vote. When one registers to vote, one also agrees for all the provided details to be passed on to the credit reference agencies. It's presented as a benefit, but one you cannot opt out of. No choice.
It is certainly possible to obtain most of the listed services without being on the Register of Electors though it may make the process a bit more difficult (I have successfully obtained a mortgage, mobile phone contracts and credit cards). If being on the Register of Electors was required for all these services, this would constitute further discrimination for residents who are not Commonwealth or EU citizen.
This is the main issue and the reason I have so far refrained to register. As a non British EU citizen, I can't vote in general elections anyway. I'd love to vote in local elections but not at the cost of surrendering more of my privacy to the big three credit check agencies. There's no compelling reason for private companies such as credit reference agencies to have details of all who register to vote. (This is made even worse by the fact that it is not possible to lock one's credit record, as is common in the US, hence further facilitating identity fraud.) A few years ago I did research whether I could register solely to vote but realised it just is not possible.
In addition to the full register, an edited register is for sale to anyone, including other commercial outfits, for any purpose. One can opt out of this register. However, opt outs never work well and it appears that no one is keen to keep producing such an edited register that only includes the names of those who have not opted out, so its existence may be limited.
(Anonymous registration is the one option available where one registers solely to vote, however, unfortunately, this is restricted to individuals whose safety would be at risk if their name or address were listed on the electoral register.)
3. In October every year, we visit households that have not returned the form so that we can get their details to go on the the register of Electors. This costs the council money, so returning your form can save us money, which we can then spend on other valuable services we provide our residents.
This is so vague, it does not work as a carrot. What is the budget for visiting households? If a substantial part of this budget is saved, to what "other valuable services" will this money be redistributed to? As is, it's not a motivation to fill in the form.
4. It is a legal requirement to return your form. Under the Representation of the People's Act 1983, if you do not return your form, you could be fined up to £1,000.
After the carrot, the stick. That's the biggest misunderstanding I had of the system. I was convinced that voting is optional - this is indeed the case. And consequently I was also convinced that registering to vote is also optional - and I was wrong. Whether you intend to vote or not, you have to register on the electoral register and have your details given to the credit check agencies.
The reference given to the Representation of the People Act 1983 is misleading. Browsing through the act I couldn't spot any mention of compulsion. The StatuteLaw database returns 78 results for a search on 'Representation of the People', so finding the right amendment is difficult and time consuming. I eventually discovered that section 23(3) of the The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 (No. 341) indeed makes it compulsory to register when asked to do so by a registration officer. This amendment came into force in February 2001.
Electoral Registration Officers have a duty to ensure that every households register eligible voters. Before taking to court those that avoid registering, Registration Officers must not only send forms and visit households, but also inspect all records held in databases they have access to, such as council databases.
If you are already on the register, you still need to confirm that with us by simply sending a text message, phoning or going online - you'll find the details on your voter registration form.
Currently, canvassing is done with one form per household with space for limited personal details: surname, first name and nationality. Only one person signs the form. This will get much more personal. Section 30 of the recent Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 provides for a process of introducing individual electoral registration from 1 July 2010. In a briefing document, the Electoral Commission mentions the first stage will be "voluntary collection of personal identifiers - National Insurance number, signature and date of birth - from electors, to make sure that the conditions are appropriate before any move to compulsory provision of identifiers."
My completed form is in the post.