Saturday, 27 March 2010

Time for a new and better crop of MPs

Any individual who is over 18, a British, Commonwealth or Irish citizen and not in prison can stand for Parliament. Most are selected by the big political parties. There is no intelligence test or entrance exam to enter Parliament in order to represent constituents. But a recent House of Commons vote suggests there should be - even if it were just a backbone or integrity test. Neither of these qualities has been particularly apparent during the MPs' expenses scandal. But this is to digress from the vote in hand. It concerned control orders. This style of house arrest detention, made popular by the apartheid regime in South Africa, has been operating in Britain since 2005. It was the scheme devised by the government following a Law Lords ruling that detaining people without trial indefinitely was illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights. Control orders involve individuals being detained in houses or flats and being allowed out only for specified periods of time - and then only to move within a defined geographical area. The individuals have to check in with a security company a number of times during the day and night. Internet access is banned. The families of the individuals concerned also effectively end up being subject to these restrictions on daily life. All these restraints can be imposed on the basis of secret evidence that neither the individual concerned nor their lawyers have been able to see, let alone contest in a court of law. A campaign against control orders and the encroachment of the secret state on the justice system has been gaining momentum over recent months. Several MPs have been involved in the work of the Campaign Against Secret Evidence. One initiative saw Diane Abbott MP put down an early day motion (number 439) stating that "this house believes the use of secret evidence in courts is fundamentally wrong; notes that secret evidence is evidence held by the Home Office against an individual that neither the individual, nor their legal representation, may see; further notes that in recent cases secret evidence has been used to detain individuals in prison for up to three years without charge or trial; further notes that these individuals may also be put under a control order or severe bail conditions." In other words, control orders were wrong and had to go. The signatories included Labour MPs Ann Cryer and Bill Etherington. Unbelievably, though, both voted earlier this month to renew the control orders regime of the Prevention of Terrorism Act for another year. The control order regime was duly renewed. The Liberal Democrats voted against, while the Conservatives - with the honourable exception of David Davis, who voted against - abstained. What the control order incident and the expenses saga prove is the need to have MPs of independent mind and integrity representing the public come the next election. Two MPs who did speak out against the renewal of the control order regime were Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Both have resisted all the anti-terror legislation. Corbyn and McDonnell now make the same arguments against control orders and other anti-terror legislation as they did previously when more and more liberties were being taken in the name of security during the troubles in Northern Ireland. It is solid, principled individuals such as these two who are needed to represent people in Parliament. Another who voted against control orders was Labour MP Alan Simpson, who is standing down at the next election. Simpson once said that there are many in Parliament who, if told by the whips to vote for slaughter of the first born, would duly oblige. He is not wrong. As a general election approaches, the concern is that it will not be independent-minded, principled people who enter Parliament, but more lobby fodder prepared to toe the party line. The control order debate is but the latest example of the dire need for MPs who possess both their own mind a moral compass. The common good of the electorate will not be served by replacing the current crop of MPs with another batch who have won their place simply by doing as they are told. There's a crying need for independents and, perhaps most importantly, independently minded people among those who stand and win in the coming election

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Jon Venables case reveals victims having too much say

The sight of Denise Fergus commenting on the case of Jon Venables marks a growing trend on the part of victims having a say in the fate of offenders.
Fergus, the mother of murdered toddler Jamie Bulger, is reported to have had a meeting with Justice Secretary Jack Straw to discuss the case. The immediate question must surely be why Fergus should be asking such questions or courting such publicity?
Venables and co murderer Robert Thompson have served their prison sentences. They are now out on licence. Venables has been returned to prison, having broken the rules of his licence.
The murder of Jamie Bulger was an horrendous crime and Fergus and her family have suffered grievously but whether Venables has now committed another crime really is none of her concern. It is a separate case that has to now go through the courts.
As many have pointed out the intervention of Fergus and feverish searching around by some in the media for information about Venables serves only to make the chances of justice being achieved in the latest case less likely, leaving some other potential victim feeling let down.
Fergus later intervened again when she called for the sacking of Maggie Atkinson, the new children's commissioner over her suggestion that the age of criminal responsibility should rise from 10 to 12. Venables and Thompson were 11 when convicted for the murder of Jamie Bulger.
From the media perspective there has always been the need to have a public demon with which to frighten people. Venables it would seem fits the bill, a worthy successor to Moors murderer Myra Hindley, especially in tabloid editors minds. These stories sell papers, so any means will be used to manipulate victims to that end. Some victims it would seem are also ripe for manipulation.
This whole Venables episode though marks a further example of the unhealthy development of victims seeking to have an ever bigger say in the fate of offenders.
A previous example came three years ago when Frances Lawrence, the widow of murdered headteacher Philip, intervened when it was revealed that the killer Learco Chindamo would not be deported to Italy to complete his sentence because it would breach his human rights. An Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled that Chindamo had a right to a family life under the Human Rights Act 1998.
Lawrence reaction was understandable but subjective. She had lost her husband in tragic circumstances, for which this boy was responsible. Now he was seemingly getting special treatment. Lawrence though seemed to be saying that she was the final arbiter over his rights. She was not an objective witness or judge, so should have remained outside the debate.
Prior to Lawrence there was Sara Payne, whose eight year old daughter Sarah was murdered by paedophile Roy Whiting in 2000. Understandably, Payne threw herself into campaigning on the issue of child protection. She was appointed Victim’s Champion by the government last year.
Payne pushed for a law to be adopted that enabled parents to know if paedophiles live in an area. A scheme is now to be extended across the country giving parents the right to ask police if someone with unsupervised access to their children has a conviction for sex offences. It is an approach modelled on Megan’s law that operates in the US.
There was an element of victim turned expert in the metamorphosis of Payne, something also seen with some of the knife crime cases like Brook Kinsella, Eastenders actress and sister of murdered teenager Ben, who knew best how to remedy that situation.
Messrs Fergus and Lawrence have both suffered grievous tragedies as a result of the actions of others but justice demands that they step back and let due process take its course. Harsh as it may sound, it is not just for the victims to work out some of their grief by continuing to get involved in the lives of those who perpetrated the crimes against their loved ones.
The danger is that again this country is about to adopt another of the worst elements of the American justice system, namely victims having a say in the punishment that offenders receive.
This is not to say that there is not a role for some connection between victim and offender. The restorative justice models that allow offender and victim to come together and for some reperation and reconciliation to result are excellent. These schemes though are played out under controlled situation supervised in private between individuals. They are not media circuses.
The narrative of much of the media in the area of crime and punishment is strictly old testament – an eye for eye a tooth for a tooth. The worry with cases like that of Fergus, Lawrence and Payne is that in seeking to exorcise their grief they become victims all over again, replaying the past tragic events, only this time for the benefit of those seeking to sell newspapers. The victims need to pull back from the criminal justice process in order that justice can be done and seen to be done.

Monday, 15 March 2010

War must not be sanitised

Father Martin Newell was once more in court last week facing the charge of criminal damage relating to paint that he and fellow peace campaigner Katrina Alton had put on a notice at an arms fair.
The arms fair, the Defence Services Export International (DSEI) in London’s Docklands, always draws in the merchants of death from across the world.
During Martin’s brief hearing at Stratford magistrates court in east London, he tried to make his case of lawful excuse in taking the actions he did. He likened painting over the notice to taking similar action if there were something advertising hand guns, child pornography or heroin. The action was preventing a crime so should not warrant prosecution. He also pressed a number of witnesses on the crimes that maybe committed in the arms fair itself.
Martin was particularly persistent when questioning the police officers who had been involved in his arrest and prosecution. Did they ever consider what might be going on inside the arms exhibition with its array of delegations coming in from human rights offending nations like Colombia and China?
The point had particular pertinence, as 11 years ago I had been involved in exposing a crime that had gone on at the arms exhibition. On that occasion the DSEI was being held at Chertsey in Surrey. A tip off indicated that a Romanian company was selling banned anti-personnel landmines. I went to the exhibition spoke to the salesman on the stand who indeed confirmed that the illegal weapons were for sale.
The story made headlines leading on Channel 4 news and the papers the next day. A government inquiry was announced. A few months later, a couple of Ministry of Defence police officers turned up at my house to take a statement. This was duly completed but that was the last I heard of the affair. No prosecution was pursued.
There have been other cases of illegal sales of weapons at the arms fairs but still they continue to take place on British soil in all of our names.
The fairs themselves are bizarre occasions with salesmen talking feverishly in a totally sanitised way about what this or that weapon can do. No mention of the damage done by the weapons being sold, just how effective they are at doing the killing.
At that time of my story the link was clear between what was happening in the arms fair and a young girl of 13 who I had seen a few years earlier in Cambodia supporting herself as she progressed slowly along a frame, both legs having been blown off by anti-personnel landmines.
Martin and Katrina’s protest brought home to at least those outside the exhibition what really was going on inside. One bystander congratulated them on their principled stance. The court process was a continuation of this process of exposure to the wider world, linking arms sales to the process of killing people.
Dehumanisation seems to be a vital pre-requisite of the arms business and war generally. It is depressing to see how life in the form of international conflict becomes so debased and devalued. The hierarchy of importance attached to different lives is an important part of this process and nowhere is it clearer than in the Afghanistan war.
While every soldier who dies is named and honoured on returning to this country. They are all it seems fine individuals, never anything less than paragons of virtue.
Compare this to Afghani lives. Few people are ever named, restricted instead to being described in purely numeric terms. So when the recent big military operation began recently in Afghanistan and 30 civilians were killed, none were named. It was just described as unfortunate in terms of the military operation. No mention of the death of some mother’s son or a young child’s grandparent.
The actions of Martin Newell, Katrina Alton, Pax Christi’s Pat Gaffney of Pax Christi and many others in taking such direct actions for life are vital acts of witness. They offer a wake up call to those who seek the whole time to cheapen and devalue life, if only to ensure that it is that much easier to take it. Whether it be by sending troops into other people’s countries or selling arms to human rights offending regimes, the result is the same wasted lives and terrible deaths. Anything that can be done to break down the sanitisation process that operates in our society to somehow make it acceptable to take life must be applauded and supported.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Need of Vatican III process to address abuse in Church

Child abuse has rocked the Catholic Church over recent years, particularly in Ireland, whose bishops were recently summoned to Rome to discuss the matter with the Pope.
The Pope left little doubt of his disapproval, declaring that sexual abuse of children by clergy was “a heinous crime and grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image.”
There has been a steady trickle of abuse cases in Britain, over recent years where the heirarchy reacted quickly, first bringing in Lord Nolan, then acting to put his recommendations into practice. There is now a massive process involving Criminal Record Bureau checks to ensure that those working with children can be trusted. An incredible amount of time is taken up with these processes. Despite this work though, there remains the fundamental question as to what sort of institution it is that produces a situation whereby its employees cannot be trusted around children?
There have been expressions of remorse, some apologies and compensation paid but no examination as to why it happened. No fundamental change to the structures of a Church that in places continues to abuse. To many, especially the victims, it seems like a damage limitation exercise.
The child abuse scandal is just one problem with the institution of the Catholic Church. What is needed now is a new process, maybe a Vatican III, to look at the present crisis.
Everything needs to be put on the table for discussion. A historic look at the question of child abuse, the nature of ministry and what the Church should look like in the future.
The questions need to go beyond whether there should be male or female priests to the very nature of the ministry of priesthood. If there is to be subsidiarity in the church, with power and influence flowing to all levels, as outlined in Vatican II, then maybe the role of priest needs to change. At present, it seems only conducive of authoritarianism with the individuals holding most powers to themselves. The limited qualification for the post, namely being male, clearly attracts the wrong type of people.
Priests need to become more pastoral – something between a social worker and a shop steward – able to empower and inspire as well as support people. The priest today is often a ritualist who sees his role only as that of policeman.
The argument over women priests is largely a distraction. If the Church opened up to women priests tomorrow, then the day after there could be as many authoritarian female figures as there are male ones today. The whole ministry of priesthood needs to be re-evaluated.
At parish levels there needs to be some genuine formation of people so that they have an adult and mature understanding of what it is to be a Catholic and Christian. Too many today have a very juvenille understanding because they have had no formation. How many, for example, know of Irish priest and Columban Father Sean McDonagh’s theological reflections on how the world has formed over 13 billion years?
A more adult Church population that understood its faith could also lead to people taking up serious roles on bodies like parish and diocesan councils. A democratisation of the Church at all levels would help ensure that the tendencies for one or more individuals to take power and abuse it was less likely to happen.
The role of Catholic schools is another subject that needs to be brought out into the open for discussion. The schools should be a key component in formation and the promotion of an adult understanding of the faith. For much of recent time the Church has been on the backfoot defending its right to keep the schools against an onslaught from government and some media. It has largely succeeded in this due to the academic and disciplinary records of the schools. Lots of people want to get their children into the schools because of the good exam results and discipline. This at parish level has bred a wholly dishonest process whereby people attend mass purely to get their children into the schools. When the children leave the schools themselves, they leave the Church until they come back with their own children wanting them to go to the schools. This is creating a transitory church in many areas with its roots in sand. Does the church hierarchy cling to the schools in the present form because they know it gives them a power with government and a way of keeping church attendances up? This is hardly right and is another area that should be up for debate at a Vatican III type process.
The social teachings of the Church need to be brought to the fore. These teachings were fundamental to Vatican II and provided much of the early energy for implementation of the teachings of the Council in countries like Latin America, Asia and Europe. Much of this work has continued but is marginalised. Working for social justice would bring the Church into the real world. It would be a way of reconnecting in the future. This could be unpopular with some but the Church is not supposed to be the province of those who want create their own fiefdoms and hide away from the real world. It was this mentality that helped breed the Church that has harboured child abuse for so many decades. What is sure is that the Church needs a serious look at all elements of its existence. It is time the issue of child abuse was properly examined with the Church accepting responsibility for the wrongs done in the past. It then needs to look at the institutional reasons as to why this occurred in the first place and act. Real light needs to be allowed into the institution. A Vatican III could, if organised properly, examine these problems and others bringing forward a blueprint to re-engage many in a Church genuinly committed to justice in word and deed.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Time to remove the shroud caused by secret evidence

It was encouraging recently to see the courts at last start to question the abuse of British citizen’s most basic human rights with the decision to force the government to publish material that confirmed complicity in torture.The individual tortured was Binyam Mohammed who was moved around a number of bases in Pakistan, Morocco and finally Guantanamo Bay. A judge in a US court of spoke recently as to how the "trauma lasted for two long years. During that time he was ­physically and psychologically tortured. His ­genitals were mutilated ... Captors held him in stress positions for days."In the Appeal Court judgement, the Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger declared that the security service MI5 did not respect human rights, had not renounced participation in “coercive interrogation” techniques, deliberately misled MPs and peers on the intelligence and security committee and had a “culture of suppression” of information.The Foreign Secretary David Miliband had previously been seeking to withold publication of material revealing the treatment of Mr Mohammed on the basis that it would damage the relationship with America regarding intelligence matters and preventing terrorism.The conduct of this case has revealed just how dominant the culture of secrecy is in Whitehall. It also shows just how little regard there is in this Labour Government for human rights and international law. It has been good to see the courts rolling back at least some aspects of the pervasive secret state whose tentacles have stretched out ever further over the past decade under the aegis of the fight against terrorism.Prior to the most recent expose on torture, the courts ruled there must be disclosure as to why control orders were made. The government response thus far has been to drop control orders as they come up for renewal and seek to choreograph acceptance of a new watered down version of this form of detention. Its “independent” terrorism reviewer Lord Carlile has been central to this process, declaring his dislike for control orders but approving them none the less though with added provisos such as time limitations.
The courts need to go further in unravelling the morass of secret evidence. The whole process set up following the attacks on America of 11 September 2001 aimed at detaining people without trial is based on secret evidence, provided by the same agencies against whom Lord Neuberger delivered his withering judgement.A number of individuals first picked up in 2001 following the passing of the Anti-terror crime and security Act remain in a complete state of limbo. They are either detained in prison or held under house arrest style detention with their families. The state would like to deport them but is unable to do so because most fled their home countries, like Algeria, in fear for their lives. Returning home, would mean at best incarceration for a number of years and probable torture. The process of detaining these individuals has been undertaken under the immigration court system overseen by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). The SIAC court represents a Kafkaesque setting where neither the accused or their lawyers are allowed to see the material on which the detention is based. Only the judges and special advocates appointed for the men have been able to see this material. The men claim to have never been interviewed about what it is they are supposed to have done or might do. The situation was best summarised by Dinah Rose QC, who has acted as a special advocate in the past. She recalled how a man in a bail hearing asked the judge: “why are you sending me to prison?” to which the judge replied: “I cannot tell you that”. Ms Rose added, “They simply took him to jail, without any explanation at all.” It is this process of using secret evidence via the immigration court system to detain people indeterminately that needs to be removed. It is the British version of Guantanamo style justice, working in the shadows, unknown to most people. The reality is, as lawyer Gareth Peirce has highlighted, that these systems of detention based on secret evidence- sometimes it would now seem obtained by torture-are experiments by government to see just how far it can go in the denial of liberties. Hopefully the recent decisions of the courts over the Binyam Mohammed case and against control orders mark a watershed. Next, all of those men who have been detained for so long on the basis of secret evidence should be either brought before a court of law to answer charges or set free. Then just maybe Britain can start to raise its head again in the world of international law and human rights.