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Jack boot terror: the Terrorism Act (2000)
from SchNEWS, 28th July 2000
'I believe that we must have some confidence in the law enforcement agencies and the courts. If we look back at the past 25 years, we can see that the [anti-terrorism] powers have been used proportionately.'
Towards the end of July, the Terrorism Act (2000) gained Royal Assent - and Jack Straw was delighted. But our illustrious Home Secretary still exhibits a rather poor appreciation of irony. If the above quote is anything to go by, it seems we can all of us look forward to this anti-terrorism law being used in a similar spirit of moderation and sensible proportion as was the old one against the Guilford Four.
The victims of that previous, infamous miscarriage of justice were the first to feel the force of the previous Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), brought in as an emergency measure in 1974. Last autumn, the present government decided to clear the legislative decks and come up with a set of permanent, UK-wide counter-terrorist provisions. 'Terrorists are no respecters of borders, continuously developing new methods and technologies to further their aims through violent means anywhere in the world.' Jack Straw warned us, darkly.
That's enough to strike terror into all of our hearts. But how about a reality check - since the original PTA we've seen the end of the cold war, and an uneasy truce hold out in Northern Ireland. Who are all these terrorists that the new Act is aiming at?
Persistent 'Animal rights and to a lesser extent environmental activists' and '[their] persistent, and destructive campaigns' says the government consultation paper which led to the new law, pointing a stern finger.
And section 1 of the Act offers a clear new definition to cut the wheat from the chaff. Apparently, 'terrorism' is 'The use or threat of action, designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, where the action
Got that? Thank goodness dictionaries aren't written in Whitehall. The Home Office has been using some pretty broad brush strokes to give us their picture of what a 'terrorist' might look like. In fact, their definition casts its net so wide, you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd been er taking liberties.
'Potentially, it turns activist movements into terrorist movements', says Alan Simpson MP, one of a noble but tiny band of MPs to have opposed the legislation. 'Somehow the threat to the stability of the state has given way to threats to the corporate estate, and that will be the basis for the new definition of social terrorism.
That is a desperately dangerous path to go down.' Luke, an anti-GM activist, is more blunt; 'The Government is creating a private security service for transnational corporations'. Many people have been speculating as to how the new law might be used. The law comes into force in mainland Britain next spring; possible scenarios abound.
Police will have the power to arrest anyone they 'reasonably suspect' to be a terrorist (clauses 38/39). Then they can detain them for 48 hours - or a week with permission from a court - without access to a solicitor. Jack Straw himself tells us 'The main purpose of the Act is not to extend the criminal code, but to give the police special powers.'
And the Home Secretary has the power to proscribe, ie ban, any organisation deemed guilty of terrorism (Part II of the Act). In that case, it will be an offence not only to belong to such a group, but to speak openly in support of it, or speak at the same meeting as someone who is a member.
Unsurprisingly, Amnesty International aren't keen in their annual report they singled out the (then) Terrorism Bill as the 'worst piece of legislation in the UK last year'. And the UN Special Human Rights Rapporteur has called for the PTA to be repealed.
Less than 7% of those 5000, mainly Irish - nicked under the first seven years of the old PTA weren't even charged, let along convicted of any offence. And like the PTA, law campaigners reckon the new Terrorism Act will be used for 'dragnet' info-gathering sweeps, and general intimidation of activists.
Leon Brittan, the former Home Secretary, said as much of the old PTA in 1985; 'The object of the exercise is not just to secure convictions but to secure information.' The provisional IRA haven't done much for the public image of balaclava wearers. This piece of law doesn't aim to do much for that of banner wavers. Funnily enough, once nicked under the Act, an anti-GM crops activist will have less rights than would Myra Hindley. Perhaps Jack Straw did have a sense of irony after all.
Terrorism bill becomes law.
An activist's guide to the Terrorism Bill
A30: New Prevention of Terrorism Act Imminent