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Detention without Trial
Habeas Corpus is one of our oldest liberties. It was first introduced in 1215 in the Magna Carta, which stated:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned…except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”
This meant that the King couldn’t lock someone up just because he didn’t like him or her. For anyone to be detained against their will, the state had swiftly to produce the person in court and state what crime they were supposed to have committed, known as the charge. This was called habeas corpus, or ‘produce the body’: all detention is unlawful unless a court has approved it.
This clause has formed the backbone of the justice system in this country.
New Labour has managed to undermine this fundamental right in two different ways:
After 9/11 the government began locking up foreign nationals they believed to be terrorists and holding them indefinitely in Belmarsh prison. However, in December 2004 the Lords ruled that the detention was illegal under the Human Rights Act and that the detainees had to be released.
The European Convention on Human Rights states that everyone – from Prime Ministers to suspected terrorists – has to be given a proper charge and a fair trial before they can be imprisoned. The reasoning for this is simple: if politicians have the power to detain without charge, they can use it for political purposes.
Following this ruling, New Labour quickly passed the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act, in which Charles Clarke gave himself the power to put anyone he wanted under house arrest. And to get round the problem that the last law was racist, this new law became applicable to everyone, including British citizens. Probably not what the Law Lords had in mind when they tore up the 2001 act. New Labour managed to ram the 2005 act through parliament in even less time than they did in 2001. When MPs went to vote they discovered that big chunks of the bill hadn’t even been written. ‘Don’t worry!’ came the response. ‘We’ll fill in the gaps later!’
"So the Government had to rethink its policy rather quickly. And so what it decided to do was to bring in control orders. In other words, a form of imprisonment, outside a prison, in which people would be locked up
in a house or a flat."
The people placed under these control orders have strict curfews, can’t go further than a mile from their house, are forbidden to use the phone and internet, and can’t have visits from anyone who hadn’t been vetted by the Home Office. And like the detention in Belmarsh, it’s indefinite. The psychological effects of this situation are devastating.
“It’s a recipe for complete social isolation...To be placed in a position where you and your family can have no visitor to your house who has not been approved by the Home Office, subject to intense scrutiny, and to not be allowed to contact and meet with people outside your home who have not been agreed by the Home Office. The men know and the wives know, from other cases, that simply to lend support to a prisoner’s family has been construed as support for international terrorism. So the whole family unit is in a state of abnormality, unable to live a normal life. It isn’t just the men, but it’s their wives, who are suffering severe depression. The children are living abnormal lives.
Control orders are very bad for single men. They’re isolated in a very different way, but for a family, one has to think in terms that it’s the family under a control order, not just the subject of it.”
Detention before charge
Habeas corpus means that not only do you have to be charged in order to be detained, but that it has to happen swiftly. After an arrest there needs to be a small amount of time during which the police question the suspect, make enquiries and decide whether or not to charge them. In Britain – until New Labour came along – this period of ‘pre-charge detention’ has been 36 hours. In exceptional circumstances the police could make a request to extend this to a few days.
After the 7/7 bombings, New Labour made a concerted effort to extend the pre-charge detention period to three months – effectively giving the police the power to hand out 90-day prison sentences.
"The longer you hold somebody, the greater the risk that, at the end of the day, they may confess to something that they haven’t done. They may give you false information. It’s a bit like the proceeds of torture. The risk is that very unreliable information comes out of long periods of detention, not knowing whether you’re going to be charged.
Fortunately, on 8 November Tony Blair lost his first Commons vote to extend pre-charge detention to 90 days. The compromise agreed was 28 days before charge. Many believe this is far too high and will become a source of injustice and wrongful convictions.
Even though Blair was defeated over 90 days, Gordon Brown and John Reid have stated that they want to force it through in the future.
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