A group of human rights activists have been at the forefront of opposing efforts by the government over the past eight years to impose detention without trial.
Most well known of this group is Bruce Kent, who has for the past four years been visiting an Algerian man called Mustafa Taleb. Mr Kent has visited Taleb in prison and under control order. Today after six years in detention, Mr Kent travels regularly to meet up with him, detained as he now is under house arrest style deportation bail.
Taleb was originally arrested back in 2003 in what was to become known as the "ricin" trial where no ricin was actually found. He and seven others were finally acquitted in April 2005.
A free man, he then tried to pick up the pieces of his life, having fled Algeria for fear of his life in the early 1990s and gained refugee status in Britain. Freedom, though, was not to last for long.
Following the London bombings in 2005, he together with a number of other individuals, were picked up under immigration law and taken to prison. They were served with deportation orders on the grounds of being a risk to national security.
After another period in prison, the judges at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) finally granted Taleb deportation bail to live under house arrest conditions, unable to go outside a prescribed area, tagged and only able to meet people like Mr Kent who had been vetted by the Home Office. Throughout this period of detention neither Mr Taleb or his lawyers have been told what he is accused of doing. He has become a victim of secret evidence. At the SIAC hearings only the judges and appointed special advocates are allowed to see the material upon which detention is being sought. Neither the men or their lawyers get to see this material.
For Mr Taleb, the only route out of the nightmare is to agree to return to Algeria – a place where he has already been sentenced to death in absentia.
Mr Kent recalled that on one occasion he was accused of breaking bail conditions on a control order when living in a flat. “He was never told what he was supposed to have done but returned to Long Larten prison for another 18 months nonetheless,” said Mr Kent. “This whole process has been about forcing a number of individuals to return to their countries of origin. Life has been made so difficult that it is hoped they will give up and go home. That is regardless of what might await them there such as torture or ultimately death.”
“No one should be detained unless they have been before a jury or panel of judges in a fully accredited court of law. Everyone has the right to be dealt with under the law,” he added.
The whole process that has ensnared Mr Taleb and a number of other individuals began following the attacks on America of 11 September 2001, when the British government rushed through the Anti-Terror Crime and Security Act (ATCSA), 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. It was as a result of this ruling that control orders were devised under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.
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.
East London justice and peace activists Desiree Howells, MBE, and Olive Flynn became involved in the detention cases through the group Peace and Justice in east London. This began following 9/11 and in the early years was in the main a peace protest group. However, following a number of public meetings at Our Lady of Lourdes Pastoral Centre, the group members found out about the individuals concerned being detained without trial.
Desiree and Olive monitored on an almost daily basis the trial that was to clear Taleb and the others accused of the ricin plot. They are also regular visitors at SIAC monitoring those proceedings. They are vetted to visit a number of the men being held on deportation bail. Both appear in the award winning film Taking Liberties and are appalled at what they have witnessed over the years. “I did not think it possible in Britain,” said Mrs Howells. “It has dragged British justice through the dirt and destroyed its reputation internationally.”
She has been particularly effected by the way in which this form of detention has ruined so many lives. “These young men’s lives have been destroyed completely. The single ones have been unable to develop meaningful relationships, “said Mrs Howells. “For those with families there has been a collective suffering. The children are growing up with a fear of when the police are going to come calling.”
One of those first detained under the ATCSA 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 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.
A regular vetted visitor to the family is Adrienne Burrows of Peace and Justice in east London. “There is incredible stress that builds up from so many years of being detained without knowing what you are supposed to have done. This is made worse by seemingly indefinite nature of the detention,” said Ms Burrows. “Restrictions that can seem minor come to put an intangible strain on family life with particularly bad effects on the children.”
There are though some encouraging signs of progress in the effort to roll back the operation of this secretive system of injustice.
In July, 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. There are 15 individuals still on control orders but these are expected to be overturned during the next few months in accordance with the ruling. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson has set up a review of control orders under Lord Carlile.
This breach of the secret evidence type system though has not yet effected those like Mr Taleb and G being held in similar style conditions, pending possible deportation from the country, though the principles are similar. Their cases at present look set to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg.
The Coalition Against Secret Evidence (CASE) was established back in March and some 91 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion calling for an end to the use of secret evidence. CASE have organised an open letter to the Home Secretary that will soon be published in national newspapers demanding an end to the use of secret evidence. So there are signs that the tide is turning against secret evidence and not before time. Few would have thought that individuals could be held for year after year, denied a fair trial on the basis of secret evidence. Only now is it becoming clear just how much damage has been done to the British justice system as a result of the decision to take part in the war on terror, begun by US President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2001. There are many casualties and they are not all to be found on the battlefield.
* To sign Downng Street petiton on detention see: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/secret-evidence/