Tue, 08 Apr 2008

Far along a destructive path

Gareth Peirce, ‘a lawyer who has since the 1970s represented individuals accused of involvement in terrorism from both the Irish and the Muslim communities’ explores in the London Review of Books whether the position of Muslims in Britain is what it was like for the Irish. It is a longish article, very well written, in a calm voice, which raises serious issues that too many may not be fully aware of: ‘Over the years of the conflict, every lawless action on the part of the British state provoked a similar reaction: internment, ‘shoot to kill’, the use of torture (hooding, extreme stress positions, mock executions), brutally obtained false confessions and fabricated evidence. This was registered by the community most affected, but the British public, in whose name these actions were taken, remained ignorant: that the state was seen to be combating terrorism sufficed.’ Please, do read her article in full.

[...] The answer lies in Blair’s warning: ‘The rules of the game have changed.’ Previously accepted boundaries of freedom of expression and thought have been redefined and are now in effect being prosecuted retrospectively, with the result that our criminal justice system is becoming further distorted as many truly innocent defendants plead guilty, against their lawyers’ advice, terrified by the prospect, as they see it, of inevitable conviction and ever lengthening prison sentences. Thousands of others, all of whom have searched the internet, watch with horror the process of criminalisation and punishment.

In this country we did not grow up with a written constitution and human rights legislation entered our law only recently. In times of tension we struggle to find answers to basic questions. Are there rules and can they be changed? Are there legal concepts that protect a community under blanket suspicion, or should that community’s adverse reaction to suspicion be seen as oversensitivity in the face of perceived political necessity? Should we accept the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number? The answer is again the same: we are bound by international treaty and, belatedly, by domestic human rights legislation, to hold that there are inalienable rights that attach to the individual rather than society. Article 8 of the European Convention protects not only respect for family and private life, but also the individual against humiliating treatment; Article 10 protects freedom of expression, Article 9 freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and Article 14 guarantees that in the enjoyment of these rights any discrimination is itself prohibited. Occasionally, fierce campaigning successfully sounds an alarm: the proposed extension from 28 to 42 days of the time allowed for questioning those suspected of involvement in terrorism is being energetically fought. But there are less obvious erosions of parallel rights.

If this is indeed how it was for the Irish, we should urgently try to understand how significant change came about for them. Much current reminiscence ignores vital factors, such as the inescapable responsibility of the Irish Republic and, above all, the political weight of the Irish diaspora and the far-sightedness of those who began and maintained contact, long before Blair was elected and claimed the ultimate prize. Throughout the thirty years of conflict, forty million Americans of Irish descent formed an electoral statistic that no US administration could afford to ignore. It is said that on the night before he decided to grant a visa to Gerry Adams, Bill Clinton watched a film about the catastrophic injustice inflicted on one Irish family by the British state. Here, Lord Scarman and Lord Devlin, retired law lords, joined Cardinal Hume, the head of the Catholic Church in England, in educating themselves in the finest detail of three sets of wrongful convictions involving 14 defendants. At one critical moment Cardinal Hume confronted the home secretary, Douglas Hurd, challenging the adequacy of his briefing.

No similar allies for the Muslim community are evident today, capable of pushing and pulling the British government publicly or privately into seeing sense. Spiritually, the Muslim Ummah is seen as being infinite, but the powerful regimes of the Muslim world almost without exception not only themselves perpetrate oppression, but choose to work hand in hand with the US and the UK in their ‘war on terror’. It is for us, as a nation, to take stock of ourselves. We are very far along a destructive path, and if our government continues on that path, we will ultimately have destroyed much of the moral and legal fabric of the society that we claim to be protecting. The choice and the responsibility are entirely ours.

(Discovered via Dick Destiny.)

More on Gareth Peirce in English legal system contaminated.

On 2008-04-23, Gareth Peirce will join Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, poet and writer Benjamin Zephaniah, chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission  Nick Hardwick, and Guantanamo survivor Moazzam Begg in a panel discussion on Racism and the state of Britain chaired by chaired by Asad Rehman - Newham Monitoring Project.

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