Wed, 07 Jul 2010

Stopping the renewal of the 28-day pre-charge detention - coming Wednesday

Imagine, being arrested, locked up and questioned by the police for a month and then told to go back to your normal life as they do not have any cause to even charge you. You are innocent, but one month of your life has been disappeared and you have been tarred with the label of suspect terrorist. Will your employer have kept your job as you suddenly left with no notice? Will you still have a home as you've been unable to pay the rent or mortgage, nor any bills? Will your friends still want to be your friends?

This happened to three individuals in the UK.

On Wednesday afternoon next week, Parliament will vote to renew for six months the current 28-day pre-charge detention limit for terror suspects. The use of these powers so far is summarised by the LibDems in their Freedom Bill as follows:

Only 11 people have ever been held for longer than 14 days, and of these only eight were eventually charged (and only three under new terrorism laws). Six people have been held for the full 28 days and three of those were eventually released without charge. Half of the people held for a month in police custody have never been charged with an offence as a result. No one has been held for longer than 14 days since June 2007. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have become more adept at dealing with terrorist suspects. The length of pre-charge detention should now be reduced to 14 days.

To learn more about the 'longest pre-charge detention period of any western democracy' come to the public meeting organised by the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities in association with the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers this coming Wednesday:

No to 28-day pre-charge detention. No to punishment without trial - No to the politics of fear.

Public meeting on the detention of people, suspected of having committed terrorist offences, for up to 28 days.

Tuesday 13 July 2010, 7-9pm, Committee Room 4, House of Lords, Westminster, SW1

Hosted by Lord Rea


Under UK law, people suspected of having committed terrorist offences can be held and questioned by police for up to 28 days before being charged with an offence – or else released without charge. Previously terrorist suspects could only be detained for up to 14 days before charge or release (Terrorism Act 2000). When the period was extended under the Terrorism Act 2006, neither the government nor the police gave any credible grounds for requiring a longer period. For anyone called a ‘terror suspect’, the current limit represents an even greater extension from before the Terrorism Act 2000 – when the limit was only 7 days. For ordinary criminal suspects, including those suspected of the most serious crimes such as murder, manslaughter, rape etc, the period is only 96 hours.

The long limit is a dangerous, unjust power. Even shorter periods have been used to stigmatise, intimidate and isolate people by branding them as ‘terror suspects’. The power to arrest and detain suspects under the terrorism legislation permits detention on vague grounds, e.g. that they are suspected of involvement in the preparation, commission or instigation of terrorism. No further details are needed. That suspicion permits the police to detain a suspect for up to 28 days.

The police are supposed to use the period when someone is detained before charge to interview the suspect, and to decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to charge that person. The police have usually already gathered evidence before they arrest a suspect, and so there is often very little additional evidence to be gathered while the person is detained. It is impossible to justify holding someone for 28 days – four weeks – simply to conduct a few interviews.

This despotic practice puts detainees under enormous psychological pressure. It can be used to extract dubious ‘information’, thus justifying detention of yet more ‘terror suspects’. It can be used for blackmailing detainees to become informers on ordinary activities in their communities. Pre-charge detention acts as a substitute for a proper criminal investigation.

Such a long detention violates the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. It amounts to internment in all but name, thus violating the principle of habeas corpus. Detainees may not know the grounds for any suspicion against them. Detention for up to 28 days is the equivalent of serving a 56 day prison sentence. Lengthy pre-charge detention amounts to punishment without charge, much less a trial.

Such long pre-charge detention is not credibly necessary in order to protect the public. It doesn’t make us safer. But it does encourage a politics of fear and suspicion, creating distrust towards and within the communities who are targeted by such powers. Perhaps for this political aim, the UK has the longest period of pre-charge detention in the Western world.

The Home Secretary intends to ask Parliament to renew the powers for six months. This decision must be made by Parliament by 25 July 2010. If the powers are not renewed by 25 July, then they lapse and the time limit reverts to 14 days.

Ask your MP to vote against renewal. Use the facility on the Liberty website, Charge or Release.

The announcement of the renewal of the current pre-charge detention period limit of 28 days for terrorist suspects was made in a statement by Theresa May. The motion 'to approve a Statutory Instrument relating to Counter-Terrorism' is scheduled to be passed by Parliament on the 2010-07-14. This statutory instrument (SI) is the Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2010, also known as Draft SI 9780111499610. The draft is available as a web page and as a pdf. An explanatory memorandum is also available as a pdf.

Hopefully, the detention conditions have somehow improved since Gareth Peirce and Louise Christian both wrote about how even 14 days or less in Paddington Green affect the mental health of detainees. You may also want to read about the arguments made when this issue came up three years ago in my Detention without trial post.

Update: Justice has published a briefing (pdf) for the House of Commons renewal debate on 28 days pre-charge detention.

First published on 2010-07-07; last updated on 2010-07-11.

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