Friday, February 20, 2009

The road to a "police state".

So, the former head of MI5 says that we are cruising toward a "police state" because of the unwieldy apparatus of surveillance and repression introduced during the 'war on terror'. What would a police state look like? How would it behave toward its citizens? I think it was Neal Ascherson who warned that we should always pay attention to how the state treats refugees, because that is eventually how they will treat us. Well, then.

Consider the fate of Binyam Mohammed. A refugee who had been living in Britain since 1994, kidnapped in 2002, deposited at various CIA 'ghost prisons', tortured with British complicity, subject to genital mutilation, eventually detained at Guantanamo under brutal conditions with no recourse to judicial review. Now, he may - under a deal negotiated between Washington and London - be returned to the UK. He might not be allowed to stay, however, as David Miliband has said that his status will be determined by 'security' tests applied to all foreign nationals. Take another example. In December 2001, about a dozen foreign nationals living in the UK as refugees were rounded up, taken to Belmarsh prison, and kept in indefinite detention, with no right to trial. They were never interviewed by a police officer or any security official prior to their arrest. They spent several years in these conditions, locked for much of the day in isolation cells. It was only when the House of Lords, in one of those 'awkward' moments that so annoyed the Blair administration, ruled that such internment was illegal in December 2004 that the men were released - and even then they were kept under control orders, whose provisions were laid out in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. They were arrested again after 7 July 2005 attacks, and the British government sought to deport the refugees. They have never been apprised of any evidence against them.

Now take the case of Mohamed Othman, aka Abu Qatada. He is a refugee born in the West Bank when it was under Jordanian control, who sought asylum in the UK in 1993. Like the other examples, he has never been charged with any crime. Like the others, he has been detained without trial. Like the others, the British would like to expel him, in this case to Jordan, where he will certainly be tortured. Of course, unlike the others, he has a public persona: he is what is commonly referred to as a 'radical cleric'. His fatwas and writings are supposedly read and appreciated by those 'combat fundamentalists' who, without such intellectual sustenance, would be smoking weed and indulging experimental sex in the Bay Area. With little evidence, it has also been asserted that he is involved in terrorist plots, is bin Laden's "right-hand man" in Europe, etc. The strength of those allegations can perhaps be judged by the fact that they have never resulted in a prosecution. If the Crown Prosecution Service declines to try Qatada for such serious crimes, how strong can the evidence be? Now, if you go away from this post thinking 'that boy lenin loves Abu Qatada and all his works', you'll be wrong. The point I wish to make in citing such an unpopular rogue is that the mystique generated about him in the media is being used to justify attacks on the very limited and basic civil liberties that we all claim. If the precedent is established that people may be subject to harrassment and unlawful detention, as well as vilified in the media, even with there being no crime prosecutable under law, then we have lost something important.

Surely, it cannot be long before such repressive legislation is turned toward internal dissidents. In fact, to be clear, it already has been. We have already had the arrests of antiwar protesters on ludicrous terrorism charges. Anti-terrorist legislation has been used against such harmless people as cyclists and photographers. The Viva Palestina convoy has already been subject to police harrassment on bogus suspicions of 'terrorism'. In the current global inferno, one can see it being used against strikers, anticapitalist protesters, student occupiers, and any other dissident groups that the police are charged with attacking.