The arrests of 12 Pakistani students in April on suspicion of terrorism hit the news headlines. Two weeks later there was less fanfare as all were released without charge.
The pattern of arresting people under anti-terror legislation and then releasing without charge is familiar to Irish people who experienced the tactic during the conflict in the North.
The comparative statistics make for compelling reading: 7,052 were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act Between 1974 and 1991; of those 86 per cent were released without charge. Recent Home Office statistics show that between September 2001 and April 2008, just 13 per cent of those arrested under anti-terror laws were convicted of a terrorism related offence. So clearly the Muslim community is now being targeted in a similar way to the Irish during the Troubles.
The application of the PTA back in the 1970s helped bring the conviction of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six. For the wider community the Act amounted to a method of political policing. People were frightened to put their heads above the parapet on the question of the political solution to the problems of the North. To do so would unfailingly result in at the very least in being pulled over under the PTA when travelling between Ireland and Britain. The powers available under the anti-terror laws meant that this detention could be anything from 10 minutes to seven days, no one new at the time when you were picked out of the queue.
A similar process is now going on with the Muslims as they are harassed. Arrests and releases to disrupt the community and the efforts of the intelligence services via a combination of intimidation and inducements to sign up informers. In terms of making the country more secure and resolving the conflict this approach did not work at the time of the Troubles and is not working now.
Another seamless development from the Troubles up to the present day has seen the government constantly pushing the envelope of exchanging liberties for security. This has gone virtually unchallenged by Parliament.
Pre-charge detention has been pushed from the seven days established under the PTA in 1974 up to 28 days under legislation of the same name passed in 2005. Perhaps even more insidious has been the effort to use secret evidence to often hold individuals without charge for years on end.
It is this process that the 10 remaining Pakistani students arrested back in April now face. When released, they were served with deportation notices on grounds of national security. So having not been charged with anything they were to be returned to Pakistan under a cloud of suspicion. Not surprisingly, all 10 have rejected this option. As a result despite their innocence they remain as Category A prisoners held in the prison system.
In July, the cases of the 10 students will move to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), which deals with appeals against decisions made by the Home Office to deport, or exclude, someone from the UK on national security grounds.
The SIAC process has all the appearance of a court but operates more like a Kafkesque star chamber. The appellants are not told what they are accused of doing to justify their deportation. Neither are their lawyers allowed to know this information. Special advocates operate who are allowed to see the intelligence against them.
One victim who could tell the students of the danger that this process represents is the Algerian Mustafa Taleb. A refugee, he was originally arrested back in 2003 in what was to become known as the “ricin” trial where no ricin was actually found. Taleb and seven others were finally acquitted in April 2005. Freedom though was not to last for long as he and a number of others were picked up following the London bombings, taken to prison and served with deportation orders justified on grounds of national security.
Eventually, the SIAC judges granted Taleb deportation bail to live under house arrest conditions, unable to go outside a proscribed area, tagged and only able to meet people vetted by the Home Office. Throughout this period of detention neither Taleb or his lawyers were told what he was accused of doing. He has become a victim of secret evidence.
Another Algerian man known only as G has been through a similar process only for longer. He was originally picked up under the Anti-terror Crime and Security Act that became law in December 2001. He was held without trial, released on house arrest style bail conditions then re-arrested after the London bombings and served with a deportation notice on national security grounds. He has been held in prison or house arrest style detention since 2001 under the aegis of the SIAC process. He has yet to learn what the intelligence is that justifies his detention.
It has been this insidious move toward conducting the justice system increasingly behind closed doors relying on secret evidence that has resulted in the formation of the Campaign Against Secret Evidence (CASE). The campaign came out of a House of Commons meeting in March that led to Early Day Motion number 1308 being put down calling for an end to the use of secret evidence in the legal process. So far 68 MPs including Labour MP John McDonnell, Conservative David Davis and Liberal Democrat Vince Cable have signed the motion. So the campaign is gathering pace.
Some of the issues will be discussed at a screening by Amnesty International of the film Hunger on 30 July. The event is being supported by the Irish Post and will include a panel discussion afterwards with lawyer Gareth Peirce and others.
So it can be seen the fight back has started. Ever more people in the Irish community are recognising the parallels between what happened to them over the years of the Troubles. Similarly, as the Muslim community learn more about those years so they increasingly see the similarity with their own situation. It must be time now for a broad coalition to be built across society that calls for the rolling back of the authoritarian structure that has been created on the basis of the false premise of offering security in exchange for liberty.
* For more articles on secret evidence/detention see - Independent - 27/4/2009http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/paul-donovan-deportees-should-have-rights-too-1674767.html New Statesman - 17/4/2008http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2008/04/taleb-deportations-algeria Guardian - 28/3/2007http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/mar/28/immigration.immigrationandpublicservices