Wed, 26 Dec 2007

Human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce wrote a comment piece in the Guardian about her client Cerie Bullivant and the injustices faced by those charged with control order breaches. The context is is the verdict in the case of Cerie Bullivant where a clear-sighted jury concluded ‘that his every breach, including absconding, was reasonable in the face of the crushing effects of a secret accusation by the state’:

[...] Worryingly, within the "ordinary" criminal process, many defendants now face charges of such vagueness and uncertainty that, even after a trial, in many cases after conviction, they still have no understanding of why what they have done has been ruled criminal.

Defendant after defendant has discovered that a long-forgotten internet search has left an indelible record sufficient for a conviction under the profoundly disturbing section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows prosecution for simple possession of an item likely to be useful to terrorists, and carries a sentence of up to 10 years' imprisonment. While the record of use remains permanently, no equivalent reconstruction is available or even required of the mindset of the user at the time. The common elements in each conviction have now become familiar: the defendant had not the slightest idea that such possession was inconsistent with the right to freedom of thought; was not remotely involved in any terrorist activity; and was Muslim.

To be blunt, as most of such prosecutions to have gone through the courts have succeeded, there is now the bleak prospect of imprisonment for thousands of young people, all Muslim, who have similarly accessed the internet prompted by an interest - shared with millions of their contemporaries around the world, Muslim and non-Muslim - in the workings of political or radical Islam. Additionally, possession of the Channel 4 film Road to Guantánamo, or 21st-century Crusaders, a compilation of documentaries from the BBC and elsewhere, is currently being held to demonstrate "radicalisation", a condemnation as conveniently imprecise as the label "subversive" used in the postwar McCarthyite witch-hunts in America.

In the face of a succession of questionable convictions, we now see a new and disturbing phenomenon whereby more than one innocent defendant, unable to comprehend the accusation levelled, yet terrified at the prospect of inevitable conviction, insists on pleading guilty in an attempt to avoid sentences that become ever more severe.

Such increasing contamination of the legal process, capitulating to an insatiable executive appetite for secret hearings when the spectre of national security is invoked, brings about a distortion of what should be the central purpose of the criminal process: achieving justice through predictable certainty and clarity. This week's returnees from Guantánamo faced secret hearings no more unjust than ours. [...]

I recommend you read the article in full. The sentence in bold is my emphasis. I first heard Gareth Peirce in 2006 at an event organised by the Institute of Race Relations (Gareth's keynote is available in MP3). After reading some of her articles and stories about her, I was expecting a strong person with a powerful voice. She is short and speaks with a small voice. However, in the few occasions I was lucky to see her, when she speaks the room goes quiet. Her actions and intensity mean she commands respect.

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