Posted in police, politics, prison, surveillance | 3 Comments »
It is a principle of English common law that if the State is to arrest someone, it must charge them with a crime in relatively short order, or release them. It is known as the habeas corpus doctrine, and has existed in some form for the past 700 years.
In the US, habeas generally means that a suspect arrested and jailed must be brought before a judge within 48 hours of the arrest to be arraigned, which is to have the charges against him formally read, and to enter a plea. If that doesn’t happen, a request can be made to a judge that the authorities holding the suspect free him immediately.
Habeas is a check on arbitrary State power. Detention is used primarily as a punitive measure, and is widely and rightly seen as a denial of liberty. The balance being struck under the doctrine is that it may require a bit of time for police or prosecutors to secure witnesses or evidence, and that during that time the suspect may evade capture, go on to commit other offenses, destroy evidence or compel or eliminate witnesses, and that in such cases the burden imposed on the suspect by detaining him is reasonable, either in the interests of the State or society. Habeas is a princple of law in all common-law countries, and similar legal doctrines apply in many other places.
Seven hundred years later, under threat by “modern” terrorism — that is, acts of mass violence committed by people not wearing clown suits — habeas is breaking down. The US Military Commissions Act of 2006 effectively suspends the writ of habeas corpus for anyone the President designates an “unlawful enemy combatant”, which is to say anyone he damned well pleases. It essentially grants the President to point at anyone, mumble something about “terrorists” and imprison that person — without charge or trial — forever.
In the UK, time limits for charges to be laid against terrorism suspects have been getting longer since 2000: seven days under the 2000 Terrorism Act, 14 days since 2003, 28 days since 2006. This week, the House of Commons passed a bill to extend the limit to 42 days, as the BBC reports:
Brown wins crunch vote on 42 days
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has narrowly won a House of Commons vote on extending the maximum time police can hold terror suspects to 42 days.
Thirty-six Labour MPs joined forces with Conservatives and Lib Dems to vote against the proposals.
But that was not enough to defeat them – although the government still faces a battle in the House of Lords.
Before the vote, Anthony Barnett wrote in “42 Days: An ‘abundance of caution’“:
In presenting their case to the nation for the extension of detention without charge to 42 days, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and the Prime Minister emphasise how much time may be needed to gather all the evidence required to lay the necessary charges because of the immense complexity of such evidence in the age of information technology and international conspiracies. Much detail is offered about thousands of files and hundreds of computers. Their supporters say that we must not allow a terrorist to walk free just because there has not been ‘enough time’ to accumulate the necessary evidence to make good his arrest. The presumption is clear. It is important to highlight this. We are supposed to accept that the argument is over how long guilty people have to be held before they are charged.
This presumption is false. Over half those arrested under the Terrorism Act are “innocent members of the public”. This is officially regarded as acceptable due to the need for the police to exercise “an abundance of caution”. And of the small number held for nearly a month without charge, half of them are innocent too.
To jail someone who is innocent is a crime, one done in our name.
Don’t worry, Britain, it’s okay. They’re terrorists after all. If they weren’t guilty, they wouldn’t be suspects, right? And 42 days under State interrogation while locked in a cage isn’t really all that bad. I mean, sure, you might lose your job, have your mortgage foreclosed on for non-payment, your utilities shut off and all your personal property carted away for sale at auction, but that’s not really punishment, it’s just what a cautious society must do to protect itself from terrorism.
This is not even to mention the hardship imposed on a person and his family and social relations by being kidnapped and imprisoned, locked away in the UK’s overflowing dungeons and subject to rape, beating and the random stab wound by actual criminals. But that’s not punishment, it’s caution.
But hey, you know, it’s the modern age. Things are so complicated now, what with computers and emails and the lack of perfect surveillance. This will only be applied to terrorism suspects, of course. The same rationale for denying habeas for longer and longer periods will never be applied, say, to cases of suspected money laundering, drug trafficking, distribution of “obscene” materials or P2P file sharing. Of course the government will restrain itself, recognizing proper limits to its own power. Of course the cops and the courts are there to protect you.
And, of course, the age of worrying about “terrorism” will come to a rapid close as State policies to combat it by progressively destroying civil liberties and claiming greater and greater governmental powers culminates in the perfection of the panopticon, what Alex Jones refers to as a “prison planet”.