In November 1997, Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism unit staged simultaneous raids on the Kurdistan Workers Association in Haringey and the Halkevi Turkish and Kurdish Community Centre in Stoke Newington.
Police spent seven hours at the KWA photographing and searching each room seizing the centre’s financial records, bank statements, chequebooks, grant application information, training records, National Lottery Charities Board correspondence and other materials. The search warrant cited schedule 7 para 2 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act authorising a search for ‘evidence of contributions towards acts of terrorism’.
Nearly a year later, no charges have been brought, but the work of the KWA in providing welfare and support for Kurdish refugees in Britain has been paralysed. Funding has been frozen after police visited funders in the course of investigations funders are understandably reluctant to be seen to fund groups suspected of funding terrorism. The centre was firebombed in August 1998; it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the suggestion of support for terrorism was behind the firebombing.
MPs debating the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill in its two-day passage through parliament in early September appeared to have no idea that the PTA already contained provisions criminalising assistance to terror groups anywhere in the world. But even while voting for the Act, many expressed widespread alarm at the way the provisions criminalising conspiracy to commit offences abroad were rushed through, the breadth of the new law, its overtly political character, and the damage and destruction it is capable of wreaking on struggles against tyranny.
Northern Ireland lessons
The first part of the Act, passed on the wave of revulsion after the Omagh massacre of August, was designed to mop up the still operative rump terror groups such as Continuity IRA and Real IRA by allowing those suspected of membership to be convicted of membership of a banned organisation on the word of a senior police officer corroborated by the silence of the suspect. That part of the Act relates only to terrorism in northern Ireland, since the only organisations to be banned under the parent Prevention of Terrorism Acts operated there. But just as other provisions of the PTA for arrest, search and seizure have been used against ‘international terrorism’ suspects, so too could the definition of banned organisations be extended by future legislation to cover groups such as the Algerian FIS or the Kurdish PKK, which are banned in other European countries.
Many nationalists were imprisoned on evidence of membership of a proscribed organisation under the PTA, which requires no evidence of actual commission of terrorist offences. The effect of the new Terrorism Act is to substitute the opinion of a police officer for evidence of membership. As solicitor Gareth Peirce points out, ‘The clearest possible temptation and opportunity will exist for police to inflate unprovable suspicion into confirmed and convincing opinions.’ In fact the Act allows the possibility of a return to internment (detention without charge or trial) in all but name.
Refugees and the new Act
The provisions relating to international terrorism are responses to complaints by the Israeli, Turkish, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian, Saudi Arabian and Bahrain governments, among others, that British asylum laws shield apologists and spokesmen for terrorist groups. A private members’ bill died for lack of a quorum at second reading in 1997. Then, Labour MP Donald Anderson, unsupported by his front bench, said the Bill was trying to restore the divine right of kings in supporting all regimes, however tyrannical. What about the right to revolt against a tyrannical government? he asked. ‘Are we to say that someone who has fled to this country from that tyranny is estopped thereby from seeking to overthrow by word or action that tyrannical government?’
This time round, the wording of the Act is wide enough to convict anyone agreeing in this country to an act or event abroad which is a criminal offence in both countries. Leaflets calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would presumably be covered, as would an agreement to spray neo-nazi meeting-places in Germany with graffiti. The wording is not confined to acts of terrorism, but is broad enough to cover all ‘offences’.
It is broad in other ways, too; the ‘agreement’ can be proved by evidence as tenuous as possession of phone numbers or leaflets, or by messages of support or solidarity to liberation movements abroad. The government claims that the consent of the Attorney-General, which is required for prosecutions under the Act, will be a safeguard against abusive prosecutions. The reverse is true: the involvement of a minister appointed by the government makes the measure political a decision to prosecute could be influenced by foreign governments.
Even assuming good faith in the operation of the Act, the precedent of the Gulf war suggests that many could be wrongly held and convicted. In the period between September 1990 and January 1991, around 180 Arabs were detained on the basis of intelligence from the security services and over 80 deported. After the deportations and after the war, it was discovered that virtually all of the intelligence was faulty.
But we cannot assume good faith. For we have the precedent of the al-Masari case, when ministers attempted to deport the Saudi dissident on national security grounds and admitted that they were doing so at the behest of the Saudi authorities, so as not to risk losing a multi-billion pound contract for the supply of arms.
Police are already liaising with repressive regimes in the hunt for ‘terrorist’ suspects. In the summer, there was a Europe-wide wave of arrests of Algerians who were suspected, it was said, of launching a terror campaign during the World Cup in France. Gareth Peirce represented some of those arrested in England. They were not asked a single word about the World Cup, she said, and most were subsequently released. But their details were provided to the Algerian authorities, the junta which seized power in 1992 after elections won by the FIS were annulled. Similarly, arrests and detentions of Turkish and Kurdish people here have resulted in information going to the Turkish authorities. The result of such liaison has been the detention and torture of suspects’ families in those countries.
The new law could make it much easier to deport ‘undesirable’ dissidents such as al-Masari, by withholding or withdrawing refugee status from anyone convicted under the Act. The refugee Convention currently protects anyone at risk of persecution except those convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide or serious non-political offences. The previous government tried for years to widen this definition so as to withhold refugee status from those guilty of political (terrorist) offences. It had some success in this. Now the current government hopes to exclude from refugee status those convicted of supporting terrorism in the nebulous ways covered by the Act, clearing the way for deportation.