Argus title : 90 days? It’d be like Apartheid
The phrase ‘ninety days’ still has the power to make my blood run cold.
I was a 12 year old growing up in Apartheid South Africa when, in 1963, Johannes Vorster, the Minister of Justice, introduced the notorious General Law Amendment Act, the ‘Ninety Day Act’.
Two years earlier, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) had established an underground organization to carry out armed struggle against the government.
Vorster led the drive to crush such resistance – peaceful and otherwise – supported by the head of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS). Both had been interned for pro-Nazi activities during World War II.
The 1963 Act was the central plank of their strategy allowing police to detain people for ninety days without charging them. At the end of that time, the police could re-arrest and re-detain suspects for a further ninety days.
Of course, innocent dissidents were imprisoned. Even racist Whites sometimes whispered that maybe this time “the Nats” (Nationalist Party) had “gone too far”.
Liberal Whites and some Black people looked to the U.K. for help, especially from the Labour Party. Though the anti apartheid movement received stalwart support from some Labour leaders, the new Labour government of 1964 gave little practical support.
Despite this, Labour politicians could always be relied upon to condemn South African government attacks on civil and human rights – including 90 day detention. Such criticisms gave comfort to South Africans struggling against a barrage of government propaganda.
At the time, South African politicians and the media trumpeted justifications from the Police about the urgent need for limits to civil liberties. They warned SA was facing a ‘new’ threat from communist agitators and terrorists, warranting enhanced state powers. They claimed that without changes in legislation they would be ‘unable to do their job’ of safeguarding the nation.
Four decades on, it is deeply shocking to hear the same dishonest rhetoric being used in Britain to justify a similar piece of legislation. Except that here it is promoted, not by a self-confessed Nazi sympathiser, but a Labour Prime Minister flanked by senior police officers and the Sun Newspaper.
In order to bludgeon reluctant M.P.s into supporting a proposal about which they were deeply uneasy, Blair took the unprecedented step of deploying senior police officers to try to persuade them that 90 day detention for suspects in terrorism cases is “vital” to state security.
In arguing for this legislation Tony Blair stated repeatedly that he was responding to a request from police. In so doing he diminished his own authority and damaged the police, whose arguments for change were ill-supported by fact. M.P.s rejected the proposal, preferring to support an increase to only 28 days with a ‘sunset clause’ requiring review of the legislation in one year’s time.
It is not the first time that a British Government has acted in such close collaboration with the Police. In Northern Ireland, during the ‘Troubles’, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was a deeply politicised force. During the Miners’ Strike, Margaret Thatcher used the police as strike breakers. However, she never deployed police officers to persuade politicians nor did she ever assert she was acting on their behalf.
It is a measure of Blair’s diminished credibility that he has needed to stress the police’s views. He is aware that his colleagues will no longer accept his word and that intelligence from UK and US security services has been discredited.
Sceptical M.P.s recall that he bludgeoned them into supporting the Iraq War by manipulating and misinterpreting ‘intelligence briefings’ which he knew did not support his contention that there was imminent risk from weapons of mass destruction.
He appears to have tried the same ruse again, this time using the police, rather than the security services, to provide ‘professional’ support for his political agenda. It hasn’t worked.
M.P.s remember the many miscarriages of justice which have occurred as a result of police error. The farcical series of errors which led to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes is fresh in their memory – as is the police’s apparent unwilling ness to co-operate with full investigation.
They are also well aware that though the London bombing are being used as a justification for increasing detention times, these bombings could not have been prevented by increased detention periods.
None of the bombers had ever been arrested. And though there are reports that all of them had been under scrutiny in the past, surveillance had been withdrawn. If mistakes were made, they were due to errors of policing and intelligence, not inability to detain.
There has been much to question in the government’s case.
The government claims that modern terrorism is ‘different’, particularly because it targets large numbers of civilians. In fact, true terrorism always targets civilians and contemporary terrorist attacks are not qualitatively different from those in the past. What is different is the worsening situation in the Middle East and the fact that our government has made Britain a target by uncritical support for US foreign policy.
The police have claimed they need more time to question suspects, but it has been established that there are needless delays in the present two week period of detention. Currently, suspects are questioned for just 10% of the time that they spend in custody. And, despite the recent refurbishment of the accommodation in which detainees are held, there are insufficient numbers of interview rooms. Defence lawyers regularly complain about delays and difficulty in seeing their clients and strongly suspect that isolation and delays are being used as a tactic to ‘break’ their clients.
It is argued that it can be difficult to establish the identities of suspects because they use forged documents. In fact, terrorists have always used forged documents and the inability to establish identity does not preclude arrest if evidence exists.
Police have asserted that Muslim prisoners require additional time to pray. Given current delays in the system this argument is risible. Muslims carry out a range of activities which are not compromised by their need to pray.
Police suggest that more time is needed because modern terrorists rely upon mobile phones – and computer technology requiring detectives to decrypt 1000s of documents. In fact, mobile phone records can be obtained with little delay and it is security services, not human rights groups, that argue against their use in court.
The need for advanced computer technology is true for many complex cases – including fraud – and there is nothing to preclude evidence being gathered after a suspect has been arrested and charged.
The proposal to detain without charge suggests that police wish to arrest suspects, then ‘trawl’ for evidence at their leisure. It is almost inevitable the law will be used to silence innocent people who oppose government policy.
The truth is that the 90 day proposal is internment by another name, the equivalent of a 6 month sentence for prisoners charged with no offence, in worse conditions than those faced by most convicted prisoners.
Internment is a tactic which always fails. It fails because it is a blunt instrument which sweeps up the innocent and the guilty. It diminishes the state because it is used to crush dissent. It corrupts the police both because they no longer have the inconvenience of having to find evidence and because physical abuse almost always occurs. It radicalises those held in prison and strengthens opposition outside it. It almost always results in acts of protest such as hunger strikes, which damage prisoners but change public opinion and resonate across the world.
Parliament did a great thing when it found the courage to reject the British ‘90 day Act’. However, it may come to rue the day it extended the time held to 28 days, for no coherent case has been made for extending the time beyond 14 days.
Two days before the Commons vote, “The Sun” carried a photograph of John Tulloch, a victim of the July bombings. Next to his bloodied and bandaged face it featured the headline “Tell Tony He’s Right”. The implication was that John Tulloch supported the 90 day clause.
In fact, he resolutely opposes it. He is reported by The Guardian to have said that if The Sun had asked permission to use his photograph, the headline he would have chosen would have been “Not in my name, Tony”.
Nor in mine.