Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland until I return to the Murcia region of Spain in the Autumn for a month or so
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Thursday, 18 March 2004

The benefit of having an accountable system of justice

A Libyan, known only as 'M', held at Belmarsh prison in south-east London under Britain's draconian Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, must be released. This judgement was handed down by Lord Chief Justice Woolf and denies the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, the right of appeal against the judgement. 'M' was accused of being a member of an extremist Islamic movement in Libya, but it appears that evidence to support the various allegations against him could not be presented.

If there were evidence which would stand up in court, I would be amongst the first to agree that 'M' should be held, tried and, if found guilty, convicted. Some will undoubtedly say that to release such a man who may well be a danger to this country is folly. Undoubtedly this is therefore an extremely difficult situation - how will I feel if, in a few months time after his release (assuming this occurs - I am just hearing on BBC News24 that this is likely to happen later today) he is found to be provably responsible for some new terrorist outrage? Pretty rotten! However, and there has to be an 'however', we must decide what kind of a judicial and political system we wish to have in this country. Do we want to live in a country where the State may lock people up indefinitely and without trial? Whilst current anti-terror legislation purports to permit such action only in the case of non-UK nationals (which is already an outrage, in my view) it is only in the last couple of weeks that David Blunkett floated the idea that similar legislation include UK nationals in its scope. Are we to save our democratic systems by subverting them? Now that would be folly!

I think it is highly reassuring that the high-handed attempts at subverting the rule of law by this Home Secretary have been roundly defeated, at least in this one instance. The motive behind the heading I have chosen is probably pretty obvious, but in case it is not, let me state it clearly. It remains an outrage that the world's most powerful nation and one of the strongest upholders of democracy, in theory if not always in practice, continues to hold around 600 people in legal limbo outwith the control of its own judicial system.

Now I think something flows from today's judgement. Democracies do have a right to protect themselves. If a person's continued presence in this country is deemed to be deleterious to our national security then I would find it difficult to argue that a claim for asylum in this country by such a person should be granted unless that person voluntarily agrees to being held in detention as the price to pay for not being deported and returned to a country where life may be in danger. I have no illusions that such an argument would itself be regarded as an outrage by some and that legal arguments against deportation might be prolonged and difficult (and there would need to be checks to ensure the government did not use such arguments merely as a way of denying legitimate asylum-seekers succour in this country).