Campaign against secret hearings

Campaign against secret hearings


Written by: Harmit Athwal

A recent meeting in the House of Commons gave a fillip to the campaign against secret evidence in terrorism cases.

In a packed committee room in the House of Commons, on 30 March 2009, MPs, lawyers, journalists, human rights campaigners and activists listened to testimonies (read by actors) from five men whose lives have been terribly changed and damaged by secret evidence. The five, from Algeria and Jordan, described how ordinary life ended when they were arrested, on suspicion of being terrorists, and taken to high security prisons, and how on their release their private and family lives were destroyed by requirements to stay indoors for up to 24 hours, to do without mobile phones or access to computers, to have their home searched at all hours of the day or night, to report to police and monitors several times a day, to have all visitors vetted, and to wear electronic tags. These conditions continue, and one man has been returned to detention, so the men could not be physically present at the meeting. Although all of the men had had hearings, none had been able to challenge most of the evidence against them, since neither they nor their lawyers had been allowed to see it.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), where the Attorney General appoints ‘special advocates’ to hear evidence deemed too sensitive for the appellant or his lawyers to hear, is at the heart of the burgeoning system of secret evidence which hides collusion with torture or worse. Diane Abbott MP chaired the meeting, organised by a coalition of groups including CagePrisoners, Peace and Justice in East London, the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC), the Muslim Prisoner Support Group, the Association of Muslim Lawyers and others. Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti gave a brief history of anti-terrorist legislation and called on MPs to reject a ‘British Bill of Rights’ which, she feared, would water down existing rights and remove rights from unpopular groups such as terror suspects.

Gareth Peirce, solicitor, pointed out that the twin evils of secrecy, and the torture that it covers, are disguised and buried behind the facade of national security, and contrasted the appetite for secrecy of UK state institutions with the openness of the US government in dressing suspects in orange, shackling and caging them – blatant actions producing visual images of cruelty and degradation which provide a clear focus for campaigners. Without such clear visual signs of cruelty, the secrecy and the complicity it hides embed themselves and grow, she said. Deference to government was positively dangerous, she added, and the government’s proposal for a secret inquiry into the allegations of complicity revealed by Binyan Mohammed and others was simply unacceptable.

Ben Ward, representing Human Rights Watch, reminded the meeting of the way so-called exceptional measures, supposedly designed for a particular one-off purpose, bleed into other areas. He urged MPs to strike down clauses of the Coroners and Justice Bill which allow inquests into deaths caused by state officials to be held in secret, away from juries and family members, and not only where there are national security issues but also where the evidence might be diplomatically harmful or for other so-called ‘public interest’ reasons.

Dinah Rose QC is a senior barrister with vast experience of SIAC, and her condemnation of SIAC as a place which is ‘not a court, if a court is a place where evidence is tested so that the truth can be discovered’, carried authority. She told a chilling story of how a mistake by the security services was behind control orders against two men. They (secretly) accused two different men of simultaneously using the same false passport to travel abroad in two separate cases. The mistake was only discovered by the coincidence that the special advocate was the same person in both cases; it would never have come to light otherwise. But even then, the security services denied that such a mistake was possible. She also described how the Secretary of State illegally detained the men after SIAC declined to revoke their bail, on the basis that she ‘disagreed’ with SIAC’s decision.

A fair sprinkling of MPs and peers attended the meeting, including veteran campaigner Lord Avebury and Tory shadow home minister David Davis. The lines were drawn to take the campaign forward. A serious challenge to SIAC and its secrecy, about which the Bar Council expressed concern in 1997, is clearly on the cards, and campaigners will expect to see renewed parliamentary opposition to the secret inquest provisions of the Coroners and Justice Bill. And the inquiry into complicity with torture must not be allowed to take place in secret. A thorough and public investigation into the uses of secrecy is called for if the rule of law is to be preserved in the country still lauded as the model for fair and open justice.

Related links

Read Andy Worthington in the Guardian on on Campaign Against Criminalising Communities – CAMPACC


Muslim Prisoner Support Group

The Association of Muslim Lawyers (AML)

Human Rights Watch



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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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