In this series of essays the solicitor Gareth Peirce, who over decades has represented people subjected to the most egregious human rights violations in the UK, has laid bare the frightening current picture of legal and governmental practice in the UK and the US which shames our civilisation.
The essays, which were previously published in the London Review of Books over the last two and half years, cover a wide canvas of injustice. She highlights the culture of secrecy in both the UK and the US which lies behind the inhuman and illegal treatment meted out in Guantanamo Bay; the hysteria of the ‘war on terror’ as it has affected Muslims in Britain; the hypocritical distortion of the Lockerbie case for political reasons; the use in the US of solitary confinement for years and the acceptance of evidence given under coercion and as part of a plea bargain; and the role of the European Court of Human Rights currently considering its verdict as the last resort for men who face extradition from the UK to the US. Is it unacceptable cruel and inhuman punishment that such a man will face, ‘upon his anticipated conviction, solitary confinement in a Supermax prison, ADX Florence in Colorado, potentially for life and without any prospect of parole. He will be confined in a cell seven feet by twelve feet, with a moulded concrete bunk; his food will be delivered through a slot in the door; external communication, even with a doctor, will come via a closed circuit television in his cell.’
Peirce, as the lawyer for many of these people, is able to spell out here the slender, or ludicrous, grounds on which men like the young American Syed Fahad Hashmi, are charged. (In his case, faced with the prospect of seventy years in prison, he changed his plea to guilty after three long years in solitary before the trial.)
She quotes Dickens in the US in 1842 on solitary confinement, ‘I believe that those who devised the system of prison discipline and those benevolent gentlemen who carry out its execution do not know what it is they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years inflicts upon the sufferers …’
Today, she points out, there is no question that everyone knows just how this regime breaks people, and is designed to do so. She writes chillingly of the ‘rage to punish’ which penologists in the US describe as having started in the late twentieth century among politicians and the general public.
Reading her litany of horror, delivered in cool legal language, any government lawyer, or MP, or official in the Ministry of Justice, might feel the need to resign in order to keep their self-respect.
Even the belated British government apology for Bloody Sunday after the Saville inquiry, and then the initiative of David Cameron’s government shortly thereafter, this summer, to open an inquiry into torture and the complicity of British intelligence officers, are shown by Peirce to show the usual British establishment mechanisms whereby the top men are always saved from facing their responsibility for the very serious wickedness that was done on their watch.
With what feels like relief, she cites the ‘words of moral authority’ of Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland who, in the al-Megrahi controversy questioned ‘the cruelty of an appetite for lifetime imprisonment which represents nothing more than an insatiable desire for vengeance’.
This important book is Gareth Peirce’s own words of moral authority.