42 Days: Creeping Internment in the UK

The British state’s attempt to push through detention without charge for 42 days is a precursor to a plan to impose indefinite internment, targeted disproportionately against Muslims and ethnic minorities.

The current controversy over 42 days is only a sign of things to come. The British state views the House of Commons victory as a stepping-stone on the way to obtaining the power to impose internment, that is, the power to label innocent people people as “terrorist suspects,” and subsequently detain them indefinitely without charge. Yet, just as the House of Lords is expected to reject the Bill for now, it is equally expected that unelected Prime Minister Gordon Brown will attempt to galvanise the Parliament Act to force the Bill through.

One of the most vocal voices in the state campaign for internment is that of Ken Jones, who as head of the Association of Police Chief Officers (APCO), and former chair of its counter-terrorism committee, insisted last year that there was a need to hold people without charge for “as long as it takes.” This “judicially-supervised detention” is, we were told, essential to counter the increasingly complex, global nature of terror cells.

This was, however, only an official public admission of police planning that has clearly gone on far longer. The first hint that Scotland Yard was privately pushing for internment came on 8th October 2006. The conservative political commentator Iain Dale revealed that Sir Ian Blair as Metropolitan Police Commissioner told a Reform Club Media Group meeting under Chatham House rules that the British people should “brace themselves for a truly appalling act of terror”, following which “people would be talking quite openly about internment”.

Then on the 19th October 2006, Professor Anthony Glees, director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence & Security Studies at Brunel University, wrote a piece in the Independent, “Internment should be a policy option,” arguing for the overturning of the European Convention on Human Rights, which he insisted is “inappropriate for a country at war.” Advocating that “We need to think about how we should behave to people who consider us enemies,” namely Muslim communities, he went on to argue:

Internment in the second world war is called MI5′s darkest hour, but internment was a very effective way of keeping the country safe from Nazi subversion. People say that the vast majority of those interned were Jews, and they would be the last people to act in a subversive way. In fact research shows that there were some Jews in Britain as agents of the Third Reich. Their families were in the hands of the Gestapo and they were blackmailed. And some say that internment in Northern Ireland made the situation better. Internment needs to be talked about. There shouldn’t be things that shouldn’t be considered — if they can help.

The increasing attempt to legitimize the concept and practice of internment against predominantly Muslim communities adds to the raft of anti-terror legislation which is already systematically discriminatory. It also feeds into the the rampant politicization of intelligence, in which — as investigative journalist and Spectator editor Peter Oborne has documented in a paper for the Centre for Policy Studies — the spectre of terrorism both before and after 7/7 has been deliberately exaggerrated, and even fabricated, by the British government and police to legitimize authoritarian measures of social control at home and abroad.

According to Harmit Atwal of the Institute of Race Relations in London:

There are two criminal justice systems in Britain today. In the first, under the ordinary rule of law, there is a balance between the rights of the citizen and the rights of the state. But in the second, under the special provisions of anti-terror laws, you can be arrested, questioned and publicly accused of being a threat to civilisation on the thinnest of pretexts, detained without fair trial and go slowly mad in the cells of Belmarsh, Woodhill or the immigration detention centres. The first system applies to white Britons. The second system applies to foreign nationals and, increasingly, British Muslims too.

Hence, the impact of creeping internment will most likely be the further systematic erosion of British national security. According to Des Thomas, a former Senior Detective Superintendent, Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) and Deputy Head of Hampshire Constabulary CID, the 7/7 attacks served “to facilitate the introduction of repressive legislation and oppressive policing resulting in the frightening and alienation of the Muslim community.” Thomas warned that the tightening of anti-terror powers is thus “conducive to allowing insurgents to establish an area from which they would be free to move, recruit and mount further attacks. Laws of this kind are often impossible to implement and the trying may itself act as a recruiting sergeant for extremist organisations.” Increasingly harsh anti-terror laws make “it easier for Muslim extremists to convince potential recruits” exposing the “short-sighted and repressive nature of the state response.” [p. 9]

Thomas’ concerns are backed by the evidence — evidence that the British state, MPs and mainstream media continue to ignore. A study by the Democratic Audit at the University of Essex that:

The key to successfully combating terrorism lies in winning the trust and cooperation of the Muslim communities in the UK. However, the government’s counter terrorism legislation and rhetorical stance are between them creating serious losses in human rights and criminal justice protections; loosening the fabric of justice and civil liberties in the UK . . . harming community relations . . . having a disproportionate effect on the Muslim communities . . . prejudicing the ability of the government and security forces to gain the very trust and cooperation from individuals in those communities that they require to combat terrorism. The impact of the legislation and its implementation has been self-defeating as well as harmful.

Similarly, even Demos, a think-tank of which Brown’s predecessor Blair has been particularly fond, backs up these findings in a study setting out a six-point strategy for countering extremism by working within and alongside Muslim communities. The report finds that the potential radicalisation of younger generations of British Muslims is precisely the danger that increasing indiscriminate arrests under new anti-terror powers will exacerbate.

Inevitably, casting the net so wide that innocent people are inevitably drawn into new police 42 day internment regimes will culminate in increasing discontent, frustration, and anger at the injustice of the legal system. It will also generate a massive burden in manpower, cost and bureaucracy on a national security system which is already riddled with holes, to process thousands of cases the vast majority of which will be dead leads.

Given that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Kevin Macdonald, had already confirmed that an extension of detention time without charge is simply unnecessary (“Our experience has been that 28 days has suited us quite nicely”), the underlying state rationale behind creeping internment has neither been explained, nor justified.

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is the author of The London Bombings: An Independent Inquiry (Overlook, 2006) and The War on Truth: 9/11, Disinformation and the Anatomy of Terrorism (Olive Branch, 2005), among other books. He teaches international relations at the University of Sussex, and directs the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London. Read other articles by Nafeez, or visit Nafeez's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on June 16th, 2008 at 9:45am #

    Bear in mind two things. One, the House of Lords is going to reject the extension, which means the Commons are having to vote again and even that, probably not until next year. The longer the thing drags on, the more the rebellion mounts, so the more likely it is that it will never happen. Two, there is a limit to what can be done by way of permanent measures within the European Convention on Human Rights.

    If Britain were “at war”, which, of course, it isn’t, the Convention permits just about anything by way of temporary measure. A country “at war” thus has no need to withdraw from the Convention, something I suspect Professor glees knows perfectly well! Internment in Northern Ireland was permissible under the Convention because it was temporary. I doubt if any permanent system of internment would stand up in court, even if someone was thinking of introducing it, which, as far as can be seen, is not the case.

  2. john andrews said on June 16th, 2008 at 10:42pm #

    I just can’t understand WHY the government is so keen on scrapping habeas corpus.

    We can obviously rule out the given reason – that it makes Britain’s streets safer, because the case for the present 28 day limit has not only never been proved, the little evidence there is actually demonstrates it isn’t needed – which then puts us firmly in the realms of speculation. I think the two front runners are:

    1. Faced with nervous politicians fearing public criticism that they are ineffective in the ‘war on terror’, the mandarins that head up our multitude of ‘security agencies’ have two options for dealing with ‘terror suspects’: respect for our first legal principle of innocent until proven guilty by providing 24/7 surveillance of ‘terror suspects’ until they get some ‘evidence’; or just ignore our first legal principle and throw any suspect into prison and hope to find enough ‘evidence’ to manufacture some sort of charge against them later on. This being by far the cheaper option and looking less obviously like a police state, it is therefore the one most vigourously promoted.

    2. Britain’s role model in everything is of course the US, whose government has turned incarceration of people into an art form with an almost endless list of advantages to the exercise. It’s a little insensitive not to follow your role model’s lead just because of a trifling wishy washy pinko liberal stance on human rights. I mean, its tough for role models to lock up people indefinitely without charge when there’s some little goody-two-shoes somewhere who persists in requiring hard evidence for that kind of thing. What kind of special relationship is that?

    I’m not as confident as Mr Kenny that the government’s extension will fall in the Lords – maybe the first time it will, but as the ‘war on terror’ has plenty of miles to run, the ’cause’ for the government’s desire to scrap habeas corpus is going to be around for a good while yet. Besides, who would have thought, just five years ago, that the Lords would permit a 28 day limit?