Friday, 31 July 2009

Amnesty audience hear that the lessons of the North Ireland have not been learned

Lawyer Gareth Peirce told an audience at Amnesty International that Britain “had not learned a single lesson from the Northern Ireland conflict.”
Mrs Peirce joined a panel made up of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg, Irish Post editor John Myles and Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi. The debate followed a screening of Steve McQueen’s award winning film Hunger about the life of Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. Others in attendance at the event included Guantanamo detainees Binyam Mohammed, Sami Al Hajj and Omar Deghayes.
Mrs Peirce declared that one lesson that could have been learned from the north of Ireland was that injustice breeds a reaction. “Continual injustice builds interminable reaction,” said Mrs Peirce, who described how this country had “torn up our history and started all over again.”
She told of “the brutalisation of civilians and falsification of evidence to gain convictions.”
Mrs Peirce believes that things have got even worse now than in the days of the conflict in the north of Ireland. “Now we are not just locking up and destroying the rights of those who have gone through the criminal process. We’ve created a new system based on secret evidence,” said Mrs Peirce.
This system has been visited on those who fled their own countries for fear of torture and worse. The British government now seeks to deport them back on the basis of assurances gained from those very same torturing countries. “We have destroyed and undermined a whole system of rights and justice. We have been willing to enact measures beyond war time measures, yet we are not at war,” said Mrs Peirce. “We are sowing the seeds of injustice that breed conflict.”
Moazzem Begg told how the scenes in the film from Long Kesh resonated with his own experiences of Guantanamo Bay. Further parallels were drawn between the comments of Margaret Thatcher and her ministers during the hunger strikes with Tony Blair and today’s politicians’ comments about the Muslim community. “There are parallels between the way the Irish and Muslim communities have been criminalised and paralysed,” said Mr Begg, who went on to describe how the law had been extended from those days to penalise the Muslim community. “What we did not see in those days was the power of the police to extend detention beyond seven days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Now there is 28 days detention and the government had wanted 90 days and 42 days,” said Mr Begg. “These things were not seen even at the height of the IRA campaign.”
Mr Begg paid tribute to Bobby Sands as providing an inspiration to people around the world seeking to get their most basic rights. “People went on hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay because of Bobby Sands and their desire to get those most basic rights,” said Mr Begg.
Irish Post editor Jon Myles recalled how during the Troubles Irish people would keep their heads down and not admit they were Irish. “It is similar now only with another community,” said Mr Myles.
The Irish Post editor criticised parts of the media for looking to demonise groups, often just to sell papers. He recalled how the Irish Post was founded in the early 1970s because Irish people felt alienated and that they did not have a voice in society.
He recalled how Irish people would be pulled out of queues for flights and boats between Britain and Ireland. “86 per cent were released without charge,” said Mr Myles, who called for people to stand up and act against the onset of authoritarianism.
He said the lessons of the past were not being learned and now there are another generation of kids going to school and having to hide their cultural background. “They should be celebrating that background,” said Mr Myles. “It is all our responsibilities to do something about it.”
Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi highlighted how the government was now intruding into every element of Muslim people’s lives. He told how whole families were being stopped at ports and airports, with parents and grandparents humiliated in front of their children.
Teachers are being told to look out among children as young as five for those who are likely to become extremists. “Staff at universities are being told to keep an eye on students,” said Mr Versi, who recalled how last year an Nottingham student was arrested for downloading some information on Al Qaeda to do with his dissertation studies.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The secret trials that besmirch Britain's immigration law

Today the latest session of Britain's secret trials begins at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) in London. The appellants coming up before the SIAC over the next week are seven of the Pakistani students arrested before Easter under suspicion of terrorist activity.
There was blanket media coverage at the time, helped by the intervention of the Prime Minister, who felt the need to declare: "We are dealing with a very big terrorist plot."
Two weeks later all 12 students originally arrested were released without charge to far less fanfare. It was then announced that 10 were to be deported on national security grounds.
One returned to Pakistan while two others were released last week, pending visa issues being investigated. The remaining seven, however, now face Britain's secret system of justice overseen by the SIAC and operating under the aegis of immigration law.
The SIAC deals with appeals against decisions made by the Home Office to deport or exclude individuals from Britain on national security grounds. The process has all the appearance of a court, but operates more like a star chamber.
Secret evidence plays a big role in the process, with the appellants not told what they are accused of to justify their deportation. Neither are their lawyers allowed to know this information. Instead special advocates are appointed, who are allowed to see the evidence against them.
A damning indictment of the process comes from Dinah Rose QC, who acted as a special advocate. "I heard the appellant ask the judge the question: 'Why are you sending me to prison?' To which the judge replied: 'I cannot tell you that.' I could not believe that I was witnessing such an event in a British court. I could not believe that nobody protested or made a fuss. They simply took him to jail, without any explanation at all," said Rose.
This system of justice overseen by the SIAC has come to prominence since 9/11, when the Government turned to immigration law as a means of holding foreign nationals without trial, pending deportation. Following 9/11, the Government rushed through the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act, which allowed foreign nationals to be detained without trial indefinitely.
In 2004, the law lords ruled that it was unlawful under the Human Rights Act to detain people without trial. It was as a result of this ruling that control orders were devised.
These effectively amounted to being detained under house arrest. There were short periods of time when the individual could go outside into a proscribed area. They were also required to wear a tag and ring up the tagging company a number of times a day.
One of those originally detained under this process in December 2001 was an Algerian man known only as "G". He was imprisoned, then released on house arrest-style bail conditions then re-arrested after the London bombings, and served with a deportation notice. While in prison he then tried to kill himself using wire.
Today, "G" continues to live with his wife and two young children under house arrest conditions on deportation bail. "No one here has ever told me what I am accused of. I have no rights here it seems. In Britain animals have rights. I have less rights than an animal," he said.
It is onto this conveyor belt of injustice that the seven Pakistani students enter today. The one way out of this nightmare is to agree to leave the country. This, though, is not an option for most who fled their home countries like Algeria as refugees in fear of their lives. Were they to return, as some have, they would be likely to face torture, prison or death.
The Pakistani students case is somewhat different to that of the others being detained in that they did not flee their home country. However, it is not an appetising prospect to return to Pakistan under the cloud of terrorist suspicion. To their credit the students remain committed to resuming their studies in the UK.
There have been some encouraging signs of progress in the effort to roll back the operation of this secretive system of injustice. Last month, the law lords ruled that control orders breached the Human Rights Act in that the reliance on secret evidence denied the appellants a fair trial.
Meanwhile, some 90 MPs have signed an early day motion calling for an end to the use of secret evidence.
In the case of the students, the government may just be about to score a PR own goal. It created such a public fuss around the initial arrests, only to then declare no charges were being brought.
As a result there is sure to be more interest about the plight of the students as they enter the SIAC process. It can only be hoped that, come the end of this week, a little more light has been shed on this secret system of justice. It must also be hoped that all those students who want to can resume the studies that were so brutally interrupted back in April

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

'Hunger' screening to spark debate on human rights

Steve McQueen’s film Hunger has brought the tragedy of the hunger strikes to a worldwide audience.
The hunger strikes marked a hiatus in the Troubles. The injustice that caused the latest phase of conflict between Britain and Ireland began 13 years earlier with the civil rights protests. The state response was violent, deploying internment without trial, which in turn led to Bloody Sunday.
The latter two events have now widely been acknowledged as acting as recruiting sergeants for the IRA. Discredited in the latter part of the 1960s and known as “I Ran Away,” the IRA became a formidable military organisation. The scene was thereby set for decades of conflict.
The sacrifice of Bobby Sands in giving up his life and standing for the Westminster Parliament during the hunger strike then pointed the way to a future policy of armalite and ballot box.
Next Thursday (30/7), Amnesty International will be screening Hunger at its Human Rights Centre. After the film, a panel including lawyer Gareth Peirce, Irish Post editor Jon Myles and Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi will discuss the parallels between what went on during the period of Troubles and the war on terror today.
There are a number of parallels. First, there was internment without trial, deployed by the army in the North during the early 1970s. Internment without trial was re-introduced to Britain in December 2001 with the passing into law of the Anti-terror Crime and Security Act (ATCSA). This allowed the state to intern foreign nationals for an indeterminate amount of time. They could return to the country from which they had come but this was not usually an option as torture and death usually awaited.
In 2004, the Law Lords ruled that it was unlawful under the Human Rights Act to detain people without trial. It was as a result of this ruling that control orders were devised. This meant effectively being detained under house arrest. There were short periods when the individual could go outside into a proscribed area. They were also required to wear a tag and ring up the tagging company a number of times a day. Only individuals vetted by the Home Office were allowed to visit.
Since 2001, there have been a number of individuals and their families detained in prisons and under control orders. Many have suffered with mental health problems.
These individuals have been dealt with through the immigration system being detained under the aegis of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). This means that much of the proceedings are done on the basis of secret evidence that neither the individual nor his lawyers are permitted to see. Only the judge and appointed special advocates are able to view this material. The individuals being held under this process have not been questioned or told what they are supposed to have done.
There is a consistent thread that runs through from the time of the Troubles up to the present day. It started with passing of emergency powers in the early 1970s in the north of Ireland. These removed trial by jury and brought in the judge only Diplock Courts. These courts formed part of an illegitimate legal process, mirrored today by the SIAC.
Following the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, the Prevention of Terrorism Act came into force. Described at the time by its author Home Secretary Roy Jenkins as “draconian” the PTA allowed for seven-day detention. The PTA was then used to make a suspect community of Irish people living across the UK. People were routinely stopped and questioned at airports. No one knew if they were going to be stopped for 10 minutes or seven days. Many were picked up and detained before being released without charge.
The use of these powers again shows parallels between the Troubles period and today. Of 7,052 arrested under the PTA between 1974 and 1991, 86 per cent were released without charge. For the period September 2001 to April 2008 Home Office figures show only 13 per cent of those arrested being convicted of terrorism related charges.
The best example of there being an ongoing process of reducing rights came in 2000 with the passing of the Terrorism Act bringing 14 day pre-charge detention. This remember was post conflict in the north and pre-9/11.
Then came the ATCSA in 2001 to be followed by another PTA in 2005, which increased pre-charge detention up to 28 days. This was a setback for government, which had been seeking 90-day detention.
Successive governments since the early 1970s have pushed the premise of sacrificing liberties in exchange for security. The success of this approach in actually preventing terrorism has never been quantified. Indeed, most critics suggest that the effect has been to alienate the very communities from which the authorities seek co-operation.
The new development has been the increased use of secret evidence. Individuals being processed through a system, detained for years on end either in prison or under control order without every being brought before a court or told of what they are accused. This is a truly insidious development, which as recent international cases have demonstrated often masks the use of information obtained by torture.
There have been recent encouraging signs of growing resistance to the onset of the authoritarian state. The Law Lords recent ruling against the use of control orders. The start of a new campaign, titled the Coalition Against Secret Evidence, which aims to expose the injustices being done under the aegis of secrecy and in the name of national security. An Early Day Motion (1308) put down by Labour MP Diane Abbott calling for an end to the use of secret evidence has so far been signed by 89 MPs. So there are encouraging signs of resistance but there is still much to be done. The need to struggle for justice as typified by the hunger strikers of the 1980s is as relevant today as it was 27 years ago.
* To book a place at the Amnesty screening of Hunger next Thursday, see:
* Further articles on the subject -
Independent 27/4/2009
New Statesman - 17/4/2008
Guardian -28/3/2007

Friday, 17 July 2009

Church must recognise need for integration of migrants

The annual Justice and Peace Conference this weekend is focusing on migration as its theme.
The 300 plus people attending the conference will hear from Migration Bishop Patrick Lynch about the challenges to Church and country of immigration.
Bishop Lynch has spoken before about the need to welcome migrants and value the contribution they make. He has also warned about scape goating in times of economic recession.
It is this question of how the Catholic Church makes migrants welcome and whether there really is integration rather than assimilation that should concern us all.
Two recent events brought the question to mind. The first was the untimely death of former Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) director Stephen Corriette. Nine years ago, CARJ published figures showing that there were 30 black priests out of 5,600 in 22 diocese in England and Wales. “It is ironic that the Catholic Church calls itself universal when it is driving black people away by its attitudes," warned Mr Corriette at the time.
The second event was the installation of Vincent Nichols as Arcbishop of Westminster in May before a sea of white clergy. The clergy of Westminster and other dioceses in no way reflect the ethnic make up of the areas they represent. It would be interesting to know how many more black priests there are among the 22 dioceses today.
The CARJ figures on black priests were published at the time of the McPherson report into the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence that identified a number of institutionally racist organisations in the country. The Church took on the recommendations of that report, accepting that it may well be institutionally racist. It undertook to address these issues, but what has happened since?
To make any definitive statement on the situation would require some research into the ethnic make up of parishes and diocese around the country. My guess though is that things have not progressed far over the past 10 years in terms of integrating black and minority ethnic people.
Integration means not simply allowing black and minority ethnic people to attend churches and schools but actually play a fundamental part in the operation of those institutions. The parish or school must open up to new ways of doing things, being prepared to change overall as a result of the input of the incomers. It is not simply a case of welcoming people in but not being prepared to change totally as a result of the contribution that they make. The fear must be that if a McPherson style audit was undertaken today of the Church that it would be found that there had been increased footfall and income but little integration or empowerment.
It would be good to see Archbishop Nichols taking a lead in this area. What is needed is an audit of our Churches and schools to discover whether they really are welcoming places that seek to integrate rather than assimilate migrant peoples.
The new Archbishop could also offer an intellectual lead. Previously, the Church hierarchy has got concepts like the need for integration mixed up with opposition to multiculturalism. There is no rationale to this argument.
Indeed, the Church would do well to have a proper intellectual debate about the merits of multiculturalism. As supporters of faith based education, logic should dictate that the Church also backs multiculturalism – the dots between these two concepts need to be joined up.
Integration rather than assimilation also belongs within the construct of multiculturalism. Integration does not mean that every migrant coming into the country simply gives up his or her culture to become a quasi-white Anglo Saxon. Integration means that the country takes on the values that migrants bring in and the mass of society as a whole changes accordingly. The new Archbishop and the Bishops Conference could do a great service to society if it spoke out strongly in favour of integration within the overall context of multiculturalism and diversity. In the past, it has been far too intellectually sloppy accepting Government dictats that couple a straight jacketing nationalism under the guise of citizenship with rejection of multiculturalism. This in reality amounts to accepting nationalism and assimilation. It is not where the Church should stand if it really does believe in welcoming migrants. As a universal body made up of migrants that have endured through the centuries, the Church has much to teach about genuine integration within a framework that enables each to contribute and play a full role.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Holding suspects on secret evidence disgraces justice

The treatment of Mahmoud Abu Rideh and others over the past eight years is an indictment of the British justice system. Indeed it is questionable whether a system that allows individuals to be held indefinitely, not knowing of what they are accused, warrants carrying the label justice at all. The High Court has now agreed that Mr Abu Rideh can leave this country to rejoin his family who have been hounded out by the state. What has happened to due process here? A combination of weak willed politicians and consciousless bureaucrats have used the immigration system to hold a number of individuals for years on end without ever telling them of what they are accused. While Mr Abu Rideh and family have stepped off the conveyor belt of detention without trial on the basis of secret evidence there are others about to join. The 10 Pakistani students arrested in April, released and served with deportation orders on the basis of their being a risk to national security now face the same process. They have been held in prison since April and must now go before the Special Immigrations Appeal Commission to decide their fate. The Government appears to be looking for new policy initiatives, so why not restore habeus corpus and remove the power of the state to detain people without trial on the basis of secret evidence? There would be mass support for such a move. An Early Day Motion (1308) was put down by Labour MP Diane Abbott making just such a demand. So far 84 MPs have signed up from across the poltical system.
- Independent - 7/7/2009

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Roma under fire in Belfast but its not all bad news for Travellers

The news of 115 Roma people being driven out of their homes in Belfast must have taken many aback 40 years.
It sounded like 1969 all over again with the Loyalist mobs driving Catholics out of their homes in various parts of the North. Ofcourse it was not the same though it was again Loyalists doing the persecuting of a minority.
The area where the attacks took place, known as the Village, has become renowned for aggression towards foreigners moving into the area. Earlier in the year, 46 Polish nationals fled from their homes after co-ordinated attacks, following football violence at a match between Northern Ireland and Poland. Chinese and Slovakians have also been targeted over recent years.
Statistics from the Police Service of Northern Ireland show race hate crimes increasing in the North from 453 in 2004 to 1,000 last year. All of which has helped contribute to Belfast attaining the unofficial title of the racist capital of Europe.
The fact that the Roma were targeted should come as no surprise. Roma, Gypsies and Irish Travellers are among the most discriminated against peoples in the world.
Discrimination against the travelling community has long been evident throughout the UK. It is seen in health and education services as well as in the lack of provision of accommodation.
Since the Caravans Act was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, travellers have been in a state of perpetual motion, moved on from one authority to the next. The present government has moved to address the problem putting pressure on local authorities to identify sites for use by the travelling community. This though has met with some ridiculous responses from the right such as the claim from Conservative MP for Epping Forest Eleanor Laing that the government was compulsory purchasing pieces of land “next to people’s homes.”
The level of anti-traveller discrimination was illustrated recently when I interviewed Kathleen Stokes who lives in Dagenham. She told how she had lived in a house for 10 years so her kids could go through school. “Education is important, “ she said.
The story of Kathleen youngest son is instructive. All four children have been bullied at school for being Irish Travellers but he fought back and was expelled. “When he went to another school, my second eldest advised him not to say that he was a Traveller,” said Kathleen. “He hasn’t, so now he is just seen as being Irish and is not bullied.”
The discrimination against the Travelling community is blatant. How often do you hear comedians making jokes about the community or passing snide remarks about “pikies.” Unfortunately, despite race discrimination legislation and the existence of the Human Rights Commission, the position of Travellers in the community is probably akin to that of Black, Irish and Asian people during the 1960s and 70s. Events in Belfast just show the worst outcomes when this mix of acceptable racism and far right wing political groups come together against a background of sectarian bigotry.
It is though not all bad news. The response of the politicians and majority community in Belfast has been one of welcome and support. The Churches have provided accommodation and support to the Roma refugees. It is this type of standing up against fascists and racist bigots that will result in their demise and the creation of a more tolerant society in the end.
In Britain, despite the efforts of the Conservative Party to join in with the scapegoating of the Travelling community the government has stuck by its policy of seeking sites for them to stay.
Last month (June), was Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month when the focus was on children. In boroughs like Dagenham and Barking, which has a traveller education service, there have been real efforts made in the schools to educate children as to the lives of the travelling community. There have been real celebrations of culture going on.
The Catholic Church has also become voluble in defence of Travellers. At Dale Farm in Basildon, Essex, the council has been attempting to move the travellers on from their now long settled site. Father John Glynn, parish priest of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Wickford, where many of the Travellers go to mass has also spoken out for them and is acting as a mediator with the council over the ongoing dispute.So it can be seen that there are moves toward a better understanding being established between the settled and travelling communities. The plight of the Roma in Belfast is a low point but there are plenty of other signs of positive developments toward a more tolerant and understanding society developing.