Sabir on Security Control Orders: out of control, out of order
New in Ceasefire, Sabir on Security - Posted on Friday, March 11, 2011 10:06 - 5 Comments
By Rizwaan Sabir
This week’s column has been what’s commonly referred to as a ‘slow burner’ but, I hope, for good reason. A few weeks ago, Professor Anthony Glees, a terrorism expert based at Buckingham University, myself and the Guardian’s Afua Hirsch took part in a debate on control orders on Channel 4’s flagship ‘10 O’clock live’ show, and although I felt it necessary to counter the “arguments” that were made by Pr Glees, I didn’t want to rush into a precipitated, hasty re-joinder.
First, allow me to lay out the basics a little, a “control order” is an executive order made by the Home Secretary to place an unlimited range of restrictions, all under house arrest, on any person who, on the one hand, is “suspected of being a terrorist” but, on the other, cannot be tried in court or charged with an offence because the evidence against them is too “sensitive” and thus has to be kept secret.
Moreover, the ‘controlees’, and their lawyers are prevented from actually seeing whatever ‘secret’ evidence is being held against them, and are therefore unable to mount any meaningful defence in court to clear their name. The only way they can ever be freed from such a control order is when the Home Secretary decides to lift it.
Due to the obvious ways in which control orders undermine the basic human rights (an increasingly unfashionable term, I know), the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties issued a pre-election promise to “restore trust” in the “libertarian principles” of the United Kingdom by scrapping control orders if elected.
However, as many sixth form and university students have recently realised, this government “promise” turned out to mean a ‘manifesto pledge’, in other words, it was summarily dumped under the weight of ‘coalition politics’ and Downing Street ‘pragmatism’. The only scrapping that took place related to the name ‘Control Orders’, which was replaced with something drier and less menacing. Thus control orders were duly renamed ‘Terrorism Prevention Investigation Measures’, or TPIMs.
Under this rebranded scheme, some minor “concessions” were made, notably on the issue of overnight curfews and internet access, but the fundamental, inherent injustice of the system itself and its problematic reliance on the concept of “secret evidence” and, thus, secret courts, was left intact. Furthermore, the very essence of control orders – an executive power that permits an individual’s liberty to be severely restricted indefinitely because the State deems them to be a threat without providing evidence of this – was upheld and consolidated.
So, Professor Anthony Glees was invited onto the 10 O’Clock Live show to provide a counter-balance to the debate regarding TPIMs. I and Afua Hirsch were arguing against control orders by suggesting that if evidence existed against an individual then they should be processed through the perfectly adequate channels of the criminal justice system rather than subjected to indefinite house arrest just because the state couldn’t be bothered to mount a proper case against them, or reveal what the case against an individual is for whatever reason(s).
Glees, on the other hand, was arguing that control orders were required because firstly, the security services required them and secondly, because there were terrorists in our midst who cannot be deported or interned and thus there was no alternative other than to subject them to a control order.
This is an overview of the debate that took place, but throughout the discussion, a series of points were made by Glees which I and Afua were not given the opportunity to respond to. In particular, three points stuck out which I want to address, and refute, in a little more detail here. I have purposefully ignored Glees’, rather strange, comments about my arrest and what led to it because to respond to his ill-informed and prejudiced assumptions is, in my view, hardly necessary.
So, let us examine these three main points of contention:
‘Controlees’ are foreign nationals who cannot be deported making control orders justified and necessary
Glees argued that the individuals who have been subjected to control orders are mostly foreign nationals who cannot be deported to their own countries of origin, which is why control orders against them are justified.
Not quite. The latest figures, as of December 2010, show that out of a total of eight control orders currently in place, all are British citizens.
This is clearly evidence that the purpose of the scheme has little to do with detaining foreign suspected terrorists but, rather, to indefinitely keep under house arrest British citizens that the government cannot show to be involved in terrorism. Glees’ claim that these orders target foreign nationals is a straightforward falsehood. Either he is unaware of the facts or he conflated the issues to justify his position.
The right to life of innocent people is more important than the rights of suspected terrorists.
Everybody has a right to life – this is a given and shouldn’t really need pointing out. However, to somehow suggest that the ‘right to life’ of innocent people can only be safeguarded by undermining and revoking the civil rights of other people at the very time when they most need them is, to put it mildly, an incredibly weak position. The whole concept of human and civil rights was introduced precisely to protect individuals threatened by instances of unaccountable executive power such as control orders.
If, in times of insecurity and uncertainty, innocent people (ie including, by definition, anyone subjected to a control order, until proven guilty in a court of law) do not receive the protection they require, they are denied their basic human and civil rights. Glees’ interesting conception of those rights is to see them as being the preserve of everyone except the very weak and vulnerable who require them most. More astonishingly, they cannot have what everyone else takes for granted because it would make the life of the executive more difficult.
There is evidence to suggest that the individuals subjected to control orders are terrorists
Glees argues that there is ‘evidence’ to suggest that those individuals who have been subjected to control orders are somehow proven to be “involved” in terrorism. This is a flawed argument that fails to realize the very essence of control orders. If evidence, beyond reasonable doubt existed against an individual unfortunate enough to have been subjected to a control order, they would be stood before a judge and jury and held to account for their actions. Their control order would be superfluous.
Of course, the fact that they are not stood before a judge and jury, coupled with the simple truth that the entire control order scheme is shrouded in secrecy is, almost always, simply an indication that no evidence against an individual exists. Instead, an entire case against a controlee is based purely on intelligence “assessments” that is built up by the very same secret service who regularly collude with unsavory regimes (and other intelligence agencies who themselves do not shy away from using torture or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to get the information they desire.)
To restate the obvious, Glees’ suggestion that a controlee is someone against whom evidence already exists, actually undermines his own position. If evidence exists, let’s use it against the controlees and hold them to account with the full force of British law for their actions. If they are not being subjected to the law of the land, then either the evidence is too weak (i.e., they should be released without charge) or the government and secret service does not want to share how it has obtained the ‘evidence (i.e. it was most likely collated through methods that shouldn’t have been used in the first place). Either way, it’s not ‘right’ to penalise the controlee for the incompetence or laziness of the law enforcement apparatus.
Ultimately, the argument for control orders is based on a simple fallacy: the safety of the many needs to come at the expense of the suffering of the few. This is not only a dangerous illogic but, ultimately, a self-defeating one. To deny the weak and vulnerable the rights we grant the strong and dominant is precisely what extremisms of all kind aspire to achieve. Maintaining control orders, as Professor Glees gleefully recommends, is to do the “terrorists”‘ work for them.
Rizwaan Sabir is a human rights activist and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde. He is researching the role of Islam in British and Scottish government policy, with a special focus on counter-terrorism.
In May 2008 he was detained for six days as a suspected member of al-Qaida for being in possession of primary research literature. He was released without charge.
His column on counter-terrorism and security appears every other Friday.