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This page provides occasional items, linked to the original articles, as we attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing situation on civil liberties.
Archive of old news service:
2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005

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Launch of the European Civil Liberties Network

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:23 pm on 19 October, 2005.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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Today marks the launch of the European Civil Liberties Network.

From the launch statement:

Civil liberties and democracy are under attack as never before and the need for a collective response to counter these threats has never been greater.

We share common objectives of seeking to create a European society based on freedom and equality, of fundamental civil liberties and personal and political freedoms, of free movement and freedom of information, and equal rights for minorities. This entails defending, extending and deepening the democratic culture - a concept not limited to political parties and elections but embracing wider values of pluralism, diversity and tolerance. And we share too a common opposition to racism, fascism, sexism and homophobia.

The defence of civil liberties and democracy also requires that positive demands are placed on the agenda. For example, respect and rights for all people, cultures and their histories, for the presumption of innocence and freedom from surveillance and the freedom to protest and demonstrate.

To these ends the European Civil Liberties Network (ECLN) has been established.

There are many groups across Europe working on associated issues, such as, legal rights, human rights, refugee and migrants’ rights, globalisation and peace. The ECLN seeks to work with, and complement, these groups by concentrating its efforts on civil liberties, freedom of information and democracy at the European level.

Their website includes a selection of essays defending civil liberties.

How to get Britain’s anti-terror laws used against you

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:02 pm on 18 October, 2005.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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Fancy falling foul of Britain’s anti-terror laws? There’s no need to carry a bomb, or a fake bomb, a guide to how to make a bomb, or even to mention the word “bomb”. Here are some methods that have worked recently:

What a country.

George Monbiot on civil liberties

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:02 pm on 12 October, 2005.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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George Monbiot, in an article he wrote for the Guardian, notes the impact recent government legislation has had on peaceful protestors in Britain. For example:

No act has been passed over the past 20 years with the aim of preventing antisocial behaviour, disorderly conduct, trespass, harassment and terrorism that has not also been deployed to criminalise a peaceful public engagement in politics. When Walter Wolfgang was briefly detained by the police after heckling the foreign secretary last week, the public caught a glimpse of something that a few of us have been vainly banging on about for years.

On Friday, six students and graduates of Lancaster University were convicted of aggravated trespass. Their crime was to have entered a lecture theatre and handed out leaflets to the audience. Staff at the university were meeting people from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Shell, the Carlyle Group, GlaxoSmithKline, DuPont, Unilever and Diageo, to learn how to “commercialise university research”. The students were hoping to persuade the researchers not to sell their work. They were in the theatre for three minutes. As the judge conceded, they tried neither to intimidate anyone nor to stop the conference from proceeding.

They were prosecuted under the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, passed when Michael Howard was the Conservative home secretary. But the university was able to use it only because Labour amended the act in 2003 to ensure that it could be applied anywhere, rather than just “in the open air”.

And:

Had Mr Wolfgang said “nonsense” twice during the foreign secretary’s speech, the police could have charged him under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Harassment, the act says, “must involve conduct on at least two occasions … conduct includes speech”. Parliament was told that its purpose was to protect women from stalkers, but the first people to be arrested were three peaceful protesters. Since then it has been used by the arms manufacturer EDO to keep demonstrators away from its factory gates, and by Kent police to arrest a woman who sent an executive at a drugs company two polite emails, begging him not to test his products on animals. In 2001 the peace campaigners Lindis Percy and Anni Rainbow were prosecuted for causing “harassment, alarm or distress” to American servicemen at the Menwith Hill military intelligence base in Yorkshire, by standing at the gate holding the Stars and Stripes and a placard reading “George W Bush? Oh dear!” In Hull a protester was arrested under the act for “staring at a building”.

And:


But the law that has proved most useful to the police is the one under which Mr Wolfgang was held: section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This allows them to stop and search people without the need to show that they have “reasonable suspicion” that a criminal offence is being committed. They have used it to put peaceful protesters through hell. At the beginning of 2003, demonstrators against the impending war with Iraq set up a peace camp outside the military base at Fairford in Gloucestershire, from which US B52s would launch their bombing raids. Every day - sometimes several times a day - the protesters were stopped and searched under section 44. The police, according to a parliamentary answer, used the act 995 times, though they knew that no one at the camp was a terrorist. The constant harassment and detention pretty well broke the protesters’ resolve. Since then the police have used the same section to pin down demonstrators outside the bomb depot at Welford in Berkshire, at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, at Menwith Hill and at the annual arms fair in London’s Docklands.

Note that Walter Wolfgang was thrown out of the recent Labour party conference for shouting “nonsense” during a ministerial speech and then had Terrorism Act 2000 used against him to prevent him re-entering the conference.

DNA database in development in US

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:02 pm on 30 September, 2005.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law.
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Bruce Schneier cites a Washing Post article which reports that the US is considering proposals that would involve taking DNA from all those arrested and keeping it regardless of whether the person is then charged or convicted, though people not convicted will have a right to ask for their DNA to be removed after any action against them is dropped:

Suspects arrested or detained by federal authorities could be forced to provide samples of their DNA that would be recorded in a central database under a provision of a Senate bill to expand government collection of personal data.

The controversial measure was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and is supported by the White House, but has not gone to the floor for a vote. It goes beyond current law, which allows federal authorities to collect and record samples of DNA only from those convicted of crimes. The data are stored in an FBI-maintained national registry that law enforcement officials use to aid investigations, by comparing DNA from criminals with evidence found at crime scenes.

And later:

The provision, co-sponsored by Kyl and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), does not require the government to automatically remove the DNA data of people who are never convicted. Instead, those arrested or detained would have to petition to have their information removed from the database after their cases were resolved.

It seems the US is going down a similar route to the UK on the retention of DNA samples. After DNA fingerprinting was introduced, the government promised, and passed a law to the effect, that those who were not convicted or had charges dropped would have their DNA samples destroyed. In practice the samples were kept indefinitely. This practice was then legalised. The UK has since legislated to enable DNA to be taken and stored indefinitely for all arrestable offences (i.e. prior to charges being laid) and made all criminal offences arrestable. There is no mechanism for someone to have their DNA removed from the UK’s database.

Metric martyrs case poses legal conundrum for the authorities

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:56 pm on 24 September, 2005.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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In the Telegraph, Christopher Booker writes:

This extraordinary story began with a ruling by Lord Justice Laws in the “Metric Martyrs” case that certain Acts of Parliament, such as the Bill of Rights Act 1689, are “constitutional statutes” which cannot be overridden by subsequent legislation, unless this is made “expressly clear”. It was on this point that the judge decided that the Metric Martyrs, including the late Steve Thoburn, should be found guilty.

But a central provision of the Bill of Rights is that no one can be fined except by the judgment of a court. For more than a year therefore, Neil Herron, the Metric Martyrs campaign director, has been questioning the legality of the automatic parking fines imposed by the 142 councils that operate “decriminalised” parking schemes under the 1991 Road Traffic Act, since motorists penalised under these schemes have no recourse to a court. Their only appeal is to the National Parking Adjudication Service, which is run on behalf of and financed by the councils involved, and which is anyway on record denying that it is a court of law.

Sunderland city council -which originally seized Mr Thoburn’s scales - had so many motorists using the “Bill of Rights defence” to justify non-payment of these automatic penalties that it sought legal advice. Eleanor Sharpston QC said that, since it was the intention of the 1991 Act that the Bill of Rights should be set aside, the penalties are legal.

Here, however, Miss Sharpston is impaled on a hook, because it was she who represented Sunderland in the metric case, which she only won because of Laws’s ruling; and Laws was unequivocal in saying that the Bill of Rights can only be overridden where Parliament makes this “expressly clear”.

The 1991 Act does nothing of the kind. The only way Miss Sharpston can defend her latest opinion is by rejecting the very ruling that won her the case. If she is right, the Metric Martyrs’ case should be quashed.

Booker also notes that the government are considering legislating to set aside the Bill of Rights, though this might not work since Parliament has no power to undo the Declaration of Rights that the Bill enshrined.

Could we be seeing an embryonic written constitution for Britain in the making here?

Met Commissioner wants cops to issue “instant justice”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:36 pm on .
Categories democracy and the rule of law.
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The Scotsman reports that Sir Iain Blair, the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police is calling for the creation of a class of police officers who would have the power to confiscate driving licences, seize vehicles and issue Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) on the spot. Note that ASBOs put in place restrictions on the behaviour of those against whom they’re issued, e.g. according to the Home Office website:

Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) are statutory measures that aim to protect the public from behaviour that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.

An order contains conditions prohibiting the offender from specific anti-social acts or entering defined areas, and is effective for a minimum of two years. For example, an ASBO may prohibit an offender from associating with other named people or from going near a house where they have caused problems.

ASBOs are civil orders made in court. They can be applied for by local authorities, police forces (including the British Transport Police) and by registered social landlords, but not by members of the public.

They are community-based orders that involve local people in the collection of evidence and in helping to monitor breaches.

The civil status of ASBOs means hearsay and professional witness evidence can be heard in ASBO applications. This is an extremely important feature of ASBOs because those subjected to the anti-social behaviour or those reporting the behaviour can be protected.

Breach of an order is a criminal offence, which is arrestable and recordable.

2455 ASBOs were reported to the Home Office for the period between 1 April 1999 and 31 March 2004

Conditions imposed in practice have included some bizarre cases such as a ban on making sarcastic comments.

The exclusion zone around Westminster

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:14 pm on .
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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This article looks at the impact of the recently imposed exclusion zone around Parliament, preventing spontaneous protests, with a group of protestors testing out just what constitutes a protest. According to the article:

Mark Barrett, a tour guide who has already been arrested under the new law, and others from various causes gather purely in support of free speech for, as he says: “It removes the essence of protest if you have to ask permission from the state.” Barrett has not yet been charged, but the police have forbidden him from going within one kilometre of Big Ben. So he can’t take a trip on the London Eye, let alone meet his MP in his Parliament. So far 17 people have been arrested for allegedly demonstrating outside Parliament without police permission, which carries a maximum prison sentence of almost a year.

Meanwhile, it seems the Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, is keen to have a memento of a lovely Sunday, which was no doubt why his emissary, a police photographer, took pictures of all the picnickers.

How to get arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:45 pm on .
Categories democracy and the rule of law.
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An article in the Guardian recounts the experiences of a man arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist on the Tube:

7.21 pm: I enter Southwark tube station, passing uniformed police by the entrance, and more police beyond the gate. I walk down to the platform, peering down at the steps as, thanks to a small eye infection, I’m wearing specs instead of my usual contact lenses. The next train is scheduled to arrive in a few minutes. As other people drift on to the platform, I sit down against the wall with my rucksack still on my back. I check for messages on my phone, then take out a printout of an article about Wikipedia from inside my jacket and begin to read.

The train enters the station. Uniformed police officers appear on the platform and surround me. They must immediately notice my French accent, still strong after living more than 12 years in London.

They handcuff me, hands behind my back, and take my rucksack out of my sight. They explain that this is for my safety, and that they are acting under the authority of the Terrorism Act. I am told that I am being stopped and searched because:

  • they found my behaviour suspicious from direct observation and then from watching me on the CCTV system;
  • I went into the station without looking at the police officers at the entrance or by the gates;
  • two other men entered the station at about the same time as me;
  • I am wearing a jacket “too warm for the season”;
  • I am carrying a bulky rucksack, and kept my rucksack with me at all times;
  • I looked at people coming on the platform;
  • I played with my phone and then took a paper from inside my jacket.

These seem rather flimsy grounds on which to consider someone a possible terrorist.

Note that, according to the article, the previous day had been the coldest July day for 25 yrs. Note also that in airports and train stations there are regular announcements telling us to keep our belongings with us at all times. Later on the author was arrested and his flat was searched, apparently because there’d been a firearms incident at the company he works for the previous year (a hoax call was made claiming there was an armed intruder in the building).

Despite charges being dropped, the author’s DNA will now be permanently on file and information about his arrest will likely be shared with the police authorities in other countries:

Under current laws the police are not only entitled to keep my fingerprints and DNA samples, but according to my solicitor, they are also entitled to hold on to what they gather during their investigation: notepads of arresting officers, photographs, interviewing tapes and any other documents they entered in the police national computer (PNC). So even though the police consider me innocent there will remain some mention (what exactly?) in the PNC and, if they fully share their information with Interpol, in other police databases around the world as well. Isn’t a state that keeps files on innocent persons a police state? This erosion of our fundamental liberties should be of concern to us all. All men are suspect, but some men are more suspect than others (with apologies to George Orwell).

Spy.org.uk provides commentary on this.

Woman arrested for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Bollocks to Blair”

Posted by Administrator @ 9:13 pm on .
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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The Liberty and Livelihood blog reports that a young woman was arrested at a country fair, apparently for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Bollocks to Blair”:

Charlotte Denis, 20, a gamekeeper from Gloucestershire, was stopped by police as she left the Countryside Alliance stand because of the “offensive” slogan.

Shocked and dismayed to be made a public spectacle, Denis tried to reason with the officers: “What do you want me to do? Take my top off and wear my bra?”

At this point, two officers marched Denis towards a police car. “They grabbed me as if I was a football hooligan,” she says.

Although the “Bollocks to Blair” slogan was in evidence all round the Game Fair, police maintained it was the first time they had seen it.

“They had to walk past a huge banner in order to get to me and there were lots of other people wearing the T-shirts,” explained Denis.

A tearful Denis was driven to a mobile police unit. “I asked the officers how they could arrest someone for wearing a T-shirt and they told me it was because it would offend a 70-80-year-old woman,” she said.

British government proposes yet more terror laws

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:30 pm on 18 September, 2005.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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The British government is proposing yet another “anti-terror” act to go along with the Terrorism Act 2000, Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 and Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. It appears the government is not content with such measures as:

Amongst other things, under the proposed bill:

  • the police will be able to hold terrorist suspects without charge for upto 3 months,
  • it will be an offence to possess, publish, sell, distribute or otherwise make available publications that either encourage terrorist acts or are of assistance in the commission or preparation of terrorist acts.

The bill also includes several reversals of the burden of proof.

Samizdata and Spy.org.uk both have commentary on this bill.

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