Politics of paranoia
Lucy Bannerman examines the controversy over new UK terrorism laws even as the anti-war movement raises its voice
Nearly 50,000 protesters vowed to change Tony Blair's electoral fortunes at an anti-war march in London last weekend. Meanwhile, the British government returned from the brink of constitutional crisis. The Stop the War campaigners took to the streets of London to mark the second year since the invasion of Iraq.
The demonstration against British foreign policy follows a bitter stand-off between Prime Minister Blair and his opponents on the domestic front, after the government tried to railroad a controversial antiterrorism bill through parliament.
In a marathon debate, almost unprecedented in modern British politics, the government argued that in order to be tough on terrorism, Britain needed tough legislation, which would give ministers extended powers over the detention of terror suspects.
However, horrified by what they considered to be an affront to Britain's proud tradition of civil liberties, rebel MPs from Blair's own party joined forces with the two opposition parties and peers from the House of Lords -- whose approval is needed before any bill becomes law -- to prevent the passage of the proposed legislation.
A game of parliamentary ping-pong ensued, as the bill was knocked back and forth between the House of Commons and House of Lords, with both sides refusing to budge.
However, after a 30-hour deadlock, a compromise was reached.
The amended terror laws won parliamentary backing -- but only on the condition that they will be fully reexamined and possibly repealed in a year's time.
The government has hailed the new law as a victory for national security, while the Liberal Democratic Party, which had refused to accept the original bill, conceded the outcome was "a drastically-improved piece of legislation."
Nevertheless, voices of dissent rang out. For many demonstrating in London, the proposed treatment of terror suspects was the undemocratic consequence of an unjust war.
George Galloway, the former Labour MP who was thrown out of the party following his militant opposition to the war in Iraq and who attended Saturday's protest, said the standoff proved how much democracy is under pressure from heightened fears over national security.
While he stressed that the UK still held an admirable record on human rights compared to other nations, Galloway warned it should be the judicial system, not the politicians, which decides the treatment of terror suspects.
The MP, who is due to arrive in Cairo tomorrow, 25 March, to attend an antiglobalisation conference, told Al-Ahram Weekly : "It has to be done on the basis of law and due process. Of course, there are always people in the country who should be locked up, but you can only lock someone up when you have first of all evidence against them, and they have the ability to defend themselves against the allegations."
"The due process of law must be followed and a just decision must be made. But this is increasingly not the case in post-11 September societies. We have now got a worrying situation in which the political class is sending people to prison, albeit under house arrest, instead of Belmarsh," he added.
The row over anti-terrorism laws erupted nearly two weeks ago with the imminent release of 10 foreign terror suspects, some of whom had been held in high security prisons for up to three and a half years.
The suspects included Abu Qatada, a Palestinian who arrived in Britain on a forged passport in 1993 and is known by several governments as Osama Bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe". He has already been sentenced to life imprisonment in Jordan for a series of bombings there and is alleged to have inspired attacks in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Chechnya.
It was left to the parliament to hammer out an agreement over the degree of control over the men. But what began as a highprincipled battle of wills, fought in the name of human rights, soon threatened to descend into farce. The controversy escalated when 62 Labour MPs rebelled against their own party, and even Lord Irvine, Blair's own mentor and former chancellor defied the government.
The prime minister immediately accused the opposition leader, Michael Howard, of putting the public's safety at risk for the sake of politic point-scoring.
With no sign of breaking the impasse, the Tories said they would accept a "sunset clause" which would mean the rushed legislation expires within a year, forcing the lawmakers to start again from scratch. Blair refused.
It appeared the opposition was holding the bill hostage.
However, at the 11th hour, the government proposed a deal. It emerged that a new antiterrorism law had already been planned for next session, assuming Labour wins the elections. This would allow the first review of the controversial terror laws to be combined next year with the passage of the new bill. Although new legislation would stay on the statute book, and not automatically expire as the Tories wanted, it would give parliamentarians who were unsatisfied with last week's outcome to object and, if necessary, rewrite the controversial law.
It was a deal. By 7.30pm on Friday, 11 March, the new -- revised -- bill became law. Inevitably, both sides claimed victory.
Provided Labour is reelected, both parliament and an independent commissioner will be asked in March 2006 to scrutinise the terrorism laws once again.
If changes are required, a revised bill could become law in July 2006, effectively replacing the legislation at the eye of last week's political storm.
The consequent debate over how to protect civilians while protecting civil liberties has polarised public opinion.
Some argue that the anti-terrorism law, with its strict control orders over terror suspects and blanket restrictions on freedom of movement and communications, is necessary to combat the cancer of international terrorism.
Others fear suspects will still be punished without a fair trial, accusing politicians of doing the terrorists' work for them by undermining democracy and unravelling the constitutional fabric of the country.
Amer Anwar, a Scottish human rights lawyer who has represented alleged Al-Qaeda suspects, said: "This country likes to pride itself on having one of the best justice systems in the world. Democracy is what differentiates us from the regimes in other countries, such as Burma, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which we have been criticising for years. We had all the laws that we required before 11 September. But I believe the government is using people's paranoia and fears that they have stoked up themselves to infringe human liberties. The values the West holds so dearly are being demolished."
"Even if you have two or three terrorist attacks it does not mean you just give in and demolish those freedoms. You have to look at the long-term causes of terrorism. You don't lock up an innocent person in prison because what you are actually doing is creating tomorrow's terrorist. You are creating resistance," Anwar pointed out.
Being seen to be tough on national security is likely to be a recurring theme in the upcoming elections. Indeed, being "soft on terrorism" is one of the worst insults in party politics.
However, prominent anti-racism campaigner, Robina Qureshi, warned that clamping down on civil liberties will lose Labour votes, particularly among the country's two million Muslims who she feared will bear the brunt of the anti-terrorism laws.
She said the government's attitude towards the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism will have a similar impact on the Muslim community as the action taken against the IRA had on the Irish community in the 1970s and 1980s.
Qureshi explained, "it has been made very clear that the Muslim community should expect to be singled out and stigmatised. People will feel they are being targeted as a potential terrorist, which is the wrong way to protect the community. Only this time the names will be Muslim, rather than Irish."
Blair has already had to apologise for the wrongful imprisonment in 1974 of Irish Catholics known as the Guildford Four, who were released after serving time for terrorist crimes they did not commit.
"This is all about the politics of paranoia," added Qureshi.
Undoubtedly, the spectre of the terrorist threat will continue to cast its invisible shadow across British politics in the run up to the elections. And it won't be the last time the Commons and the Lords clash over the issue -- the two houses are guaranteed round two when the law comes up for scrutiny again next year.