Imprisonment without Trial and Labour Hypocrisy

Argus title : Hypocrite Hain must go back to his roots

Earlier this week, I watched as Peter Hain, Labour Leader of the Commons, ponderously defended proposed government legislation to introduce house arrest and other forms of punishment without trial.

Synthetically brown, smooth and well-fed, he delivered the government’s ‘line’ that if a terrorist outrage should occur, the electorate will be more concerned about whether it could have been averted than about civil liberties.

Hain was once a radical Young Liberal who led British protests against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. At that time, he was resolute in his condemnation of house arrest, banning orders and all the other means by which the South African government controlled people it considered terrorists or terrorist sympathisers.

In his years as an activist Peter Hain rightly condemned unjust imprisonment and torture. But now he serves in a Government which has imprisoned foreign nationals without trial, having apparently based the decision to do so upon potentially flawed ‘evidence’ gathered by informers or extracted under torture in other countries. Despairing of justice, some of those imprisoned have gone mad.

Now that the courts have ordered the men’s release – on the basis that their incarceration is illegal because the same rules do not apply to British citizens – Hain is supporting the extension of punishment without trial to U.K. residents as well.

Legislation is being bounced through parliament while the British people are distracted by news of royal weddings and conveniently timed police warnings of terrorist threat. There is as yet little public protest because many members of the public are not aware of the proposals or believe that proposed restrictions will apply only to foreign nationals

Peter Hain’s parents were members of the South African Liberal Party. Both opposed Apartheid and were subject to banning orders (very similar to this Government’s proposed Control Orders). Over the years, Hain has regularly reminded the electorate of his radical credentials. It has done his career no harm.

As recently as last October he sympathetically reviewed the re-issue of anti-Apartheid campaigner Hilda Bernstein’s book “The World That Was Ours”. He wrote passionately about “the disruption of day to day living by constant police surveillance, police raids and restrictions such as house arrest or banning orders” and the ”more personal things such as career difficulties…” estrangement from close relatives and the “erosion of personal friendships”.

Yet now Hain supports legislation which will condemn other families to similar suffering. He comments cuttingly in the review that in South Africa today “all those agents of the police state” who once supported such legislation are “nowhere to be found”.

It is true that in South Africa these days, it’s quite difficult to find anyone who will admit to actively supporting the Apartheid regime. However, my cousin Gavin is one who does. I find it instructive to compare him with the sleek Mr Hain.

Though my parents opposed Apartheid, their families did not. Most were uncritically supportive of the government, accepting their relative privilege and remaining indifferent to Apartheid’s abuses.

The majority never acted as agents of the state. However, there were a few who did. For them, fervent support for the regime was a matter conviction. Thus it was with my cousin’s family.

While Peter Hain’s father was a middle class professional, my cousin’s father was a craftsman with little formal education. The Hains were university-educated. My cousin’s parents mistrusted universities and discouraged their children from formal study.

The Hains were liberals. My uncle was so great an admirer of Hitler that in the thirties – at a time when few working class people travelled abroad – he journeyed to Germany.

I have just a few childhood memories of my cousin. He was quite a gentle boy. I remember him singing “Yankee Doodle” and stealing sausage rolls from our Auntie Flo.

I lost touch with him in adolescence, but he reappeared when I began a politics course at university. It was obvious he was an informer. I later learned that he had trained as an undercover police officer.

Some years afterwards, I wrote to Gavin from England to ask why he had informed on me and my friends. He said then that it was because he thought I had “got involved in drugs”. I was appalled for this was untrue.

My friends were not drug users and apart from one pathetic failed attempt to smoke cannabis I’d never used any drug. It was well known that the politics tutor who was a close friend of mine, and the primary target of special branch attention at that time, was a teetotaller passionately opposed to drug use.

Despite this, I am quite sure that my cousin believed this to be true and that in consequence of this somewhere special branch files exist which indicate, among other things, that I misused drugs at that time. To my knowledge this ‘intelligence’ was never used against me. But had I remained in South Africa it probably would have been.

What was noticeable about Gavin – and others like him – was that though he was paid to inform, he was himself extremely badly informed. He was poorly educated but his political attitudes were very fixed. He was not a dispassionate observer of events – informers never are. He believed – as he told me many years later – that he was engaged in a “war against communism”. This was the real reason he’d become an informer.

He didn’t understand the people he was spying on, their ideas and in some cases their language. Therefore, like other informers, he misinterpreted what he saw and heard and as a consequence gave false intelligence to his masters.

And yet that ‘information’ entered a pool of flawed intelligence, and was used against people. In the context of that time and place, some were banned, others were imprisoned and 2 were killed.

Few people in parliament can have as good an understanding as Peter Hain of the inaccuracy of informer based intelligence gathering and the chronic incompetence of security services which, by reason of their secrecy, remain unaccountable for their mistakes.

The Commons debate about house arrest took place on the same day that 6 British soldiers were found guilty of abusing Iraqi civilians. Photographs revealed prisoners who had been stripped and sexually humiliated giving the ‘thumbs up’ sign. It was a stark reminder that prisoners subject to abuse will do or say anything to make their tormentors stop. This can and does include giving false information about other people.

Information provided by our US allies has often been extracted in circumstances which in any civilised court would render the testimony invalid. Instead of having the courage to tell the US to stop extracting information by torture, we plan to accept potentially contaminated information and to bypass the courts which could have exposed it.

It matters not whether the decisions are made or reviewed by judges. Without the protection of due process in court, innocent people will be punished. And governments will use the law to silence legitimate dissent.

After the fiasco of faulty intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, it’s hard to believe that any politician would, on the basis of advice and information from security services, wish to make decisions abrogating human rights and the due process of law. But such would seem to be the case.

So far only the Tories and a few Labour rebels have opposed the proposals. Charles Kennedy’s only response – perhaps nursing delusions of future coalition with Labour – has been to argue that a senior judge, rather than a senior politician, should make the decision. Predictably, Labour graciously hints at ‘concessions’.

Unlike the chameleon-like Mr Hain and the shape-shifters who surround him, my cousin remains what he has always been. Though I disagree with everything he stands for, I have grown to respect his consistency.

For the hypocrites who promote this abominable law, I have no respect at all.

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