By Mike Rowley
House arrest, a form of incarceration formerly identified with Burmese dictators, has come to Britain under cover of the “war on terror”.
Charles Clarke, the new Home Secretary, has announced that indefinite detention without charge of people arrested under the Terrorism Act will cease. He was pushed to do so by a ruling by the House of Lords that the detention of 11 such people in Belmarsh Prison was unlawful. The Home Office will now not oppose bail for these 11.
Now Clarke plans to get around human rights law by inventing “control orders” —locking the 11, and any future suspects, in their homes instead of locking them in prison.
The House of Lords, in its ruling on the Belmarsh detainees, held that the provision under which they were detained was discriminatory because only foreign suspects could be detained. Charles Clarke’s new proposals contain an answer to this: he plans to lock up British citizens without trial too!
This rather spoils the government’s argument that the detainees could get out of detention by agreeing to return to their countries of origin. Of course, they cannot do so because of conditions there, and Clarke himself admits that they were detained because they could not legally be deported.
One suspect, known for legal reasons only as “G”, has been held under house arrest since April last year, when he was released from Belmarsh on mental health grounds. Ironically, the Home Office then opposed his release into house arrest. Since being released G’s mental health has not improved: he is not allowed to leave his tiny flat or to communicate with the outside world, and he is suffering from isolation and claustrophobia.
The Home Office has accused G of breaking his bail conditions by allowing two visitors to enter his flat. When he contested this they refused to give him any details of their accusation!
Clarke is proposing to place the other detainees in similar conditions. Ben Emmerson QC, representing two detainees who are currently applying for bail, objects that the Home Office is planning to use them as “guinea pigs” for Clarke’s house arrest scheme.
The two detainees would rather remain in prison than live cooped up in their homes completely cut off from society. One of them has no family, so would be forced to live alone with no visitors. He has a severe depressive illness and cannot walk. In these circumstances, as Mr. Emmerson pointed out, house arrest would be “inhuman and extremely dangerous”.
After condemning repression by political-Islamist regimes and citing the terrible oppression of women as a justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, it seems that New Labour has discovered purdah, and quite likes the idea. The sweep of Clarke’s new proposals means that “house arrest” could in future be used against a wide range of real or suspected oppositionists.
Charles Clarke has given the Commons the usual spiel: “There remains a public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. This has been the rhetoric of both the British and US governments since 11 September 2001. It is a rhetoric of irrational fear.
One detainee, Mahmoud Abu Rideh, is a Palestinian who was tortured by the Israeli occupation forces in Gaza. He claimed asylum in Britain in 1995 and was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. How severely mentally ill he was is unknown, but it seems his illness may have given rise to religious delusions. He became a supporter of al-Qaeda, allegedly raising funds for terrorist groups. In Belmarsh his mental state deteriorated, and he had to be sent to Broadmoor. Despite unanimous medical recommendations the Home Office has refused, until now, to release him into a non-penal psychiatric institution.
The government wishes us to believe that we are about to be invaded by millions of terrorists with Kalashnikovs in hand and explosives at the ready: it is the only way they can justify their uncritical following of US foreign policy and their increasingly authoritarian domestic policy. But a mentally ill man raising funds for al-Qaeda, although he may constitute a security problem, is hardly “a public emergency threatening the life of the nation”.
The greater “public emergency” is New Labour’s relentless erosion of our civil liberties.