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NEWS

The UK’s New ‘Orwellian’ Counter Terrorism Bill

admin - June 15, 2018 - counter-terrorism, Terrorism, access to a lawyer

In the wake of the horrific terror attacks that happened in the UK during 2017, it’s never been more essential that the authorities have the power to keep us safe. But the UK’s proposed new Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill has raised serious concerns about the price that all of us must pay in pursuit of security. The Bill creates new ‘terrorism’ offences which include seeking information and the expression of opinions, without any intent to cause harm or to knowingly promote these views to others, leading some civil society organisations to accuse the Bill of ‘thought-policing’.

Until now, the UK courts have been clear that in order to convict someone of inviting support for terrorist organisations, the defendant has to have ‘knowingly’ invited support for terrorism. The new Bill removes this last safeguard, meaning that any expression of opinion about a terrorist organisation that isn’t negative, is a criminal offence. In an article published on Monday, Home Secretary Sajid Javid rejected the idea that the UK’s new legislation ‘criminalises thought’, but did not offer a counter-argument as to how certain groups’ thoughts and opinions aren’t inevitably criminalised by the legislation.

In recent years, many countries have adopted controversial new terrorism laws which expand the definition of terrorism and terrorist offences. One such country is Spain, which has been making headlines thanks to a spate of arrests across the country, from youths caught up in bar brawls and vegan activists posting on social media to rappers arrested for their lyrics, apparently it all amounts to terrorism.

As well as creating new terrorism offences, the UK Bill gives extra powers to police that could have a severely detrimental impact on the procedural rights of suspects, and allows for sentences that in some cases would be completely disproportionate to the crime committed.

The Bill’s increases the power to stop and detain people at borders directly impacting people’s fundamental rights. The Terrorism Act (2000) currently allows for suspicionless stop and detention at borders, but the new Bill would extend this so that these powers can be used “whether or not there are grounds for suspecting that a person is or has been engaged in hostile activity.” By this rationale, authorities are free to arbitrarily detain whoever they choose without having to supply any explanation.

Other powers contained in the Bill include the ability to detain people for an hour without giving them access to a lawyer, after which time they will be allowed to have access to legal advice. However, the Bill also allows authorities to instruct an officer to remain in the room with a suspect and their lawyer, destroying the right to receive confidential legal advice. The right to a lawyer is, for people accused of crimes, the gateway to a fair trial. As well as helping suspects to understand and exercise their rights, they also act as a protective presence, ensuring that their clients are not subjected to any form of ill-treatment and reducing the risk of pressure that can result in false confessions and wrongful convictions.

The list of new powers and punishments goes on – increased powers to hold people’s data (even if they’ve not been convicted of anything) and greatly increased prison sentences. Under the new Bill, a person convicted of viewing terrorist material- that is, viewing an online post or video more than three times- can face a prison sentence of 15 years. Terrorism is no trivial matter, but neither are custodial sentences- they have the power to destroy lives. Custodial sentences of this length are inappropriate for the ‘crime’ of merely seeking information.

In his article, Sajid Javid said he rejected “any attempt to simplify today’s debate into one of security versus liberty. This is not a binary choice we need to make. The fact of the matter is there can be no liberty without security”. He is right to recognise that security and justice are not conflicting priorities – a zero sum game. But respect for human rights is key to our security. The ‘war on terror’ is often framed as a conflict between democratic or ‘British’ values and those who seek to destroy them, but we must ensure that by trying to protect these values, we don’t end up diminishing them by repealing essential procedural safeguards.

The principles of necessity and proportionality should underpin any legal response to terrorism, as well as fundamental respect for human rights. We hope that in its review of the Bill, the UK Parliament reforms these proposals to re-assert these crucial values.

To read more on the Bill and its changes, see Liberty’s briefing here.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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