Gestapo Courts

Pub­lished in The Huff­ing­ton Post UK, 30 Septem­ber 2012

Pub­lished in The Real News Net­work, 30 Septem­ber 2012

A lot of sound and fury has been expen­ded in the Brit­ish media over the last few months about the Coali­tion government’s pro­pos­al to enact secret courts via the pro­posed Justice and Secur­ity Bill — purely for ter­ror­ist cases, you under­stand. Which, of course, is OK as we all know ter­ror­ists are by defin­i­tion the Bad­dies.

Except we need to drill down into the detail of the pro­pos­als, have a look at some his­tory, and think through the future implic­a­tions.

The concept of secret courts emerged from the offi­cial UK spook sec­tor — MI5 and MI6 have been lob­by­ing hard for such pro­tec­tion over recent years.  Their argu­ment revolves around a num­ber of civil cases, where Brit­ish vic­tims of extraordin­ary rendi­tion and sub­sequent tor­ture have sued the pants off the spies through civil courts and received some recom­pense for their years of suf­fer­ing.

The most notori­ous case was that of Binyam Mohamed, who was repeatedly tor­tured in a black pris­on in Morocco, with Brit­ish spies allegedly con­trib­ut­ing to his ques­tion­ing. And we’re not talk­ing about a few stress pos­i­tions, awful as they are. Mohamed was strung up and had his penis repeatedly slashed with a razor.

MI5 and MI6 are aggrieved because they could not defend them­selves in the res­ult­ant civil actions brought against them, and they (and their former polit­ic­al mas­ter Jack Straw) are par­tic­u­larly wor­ried about future cases around the MI6-organ­ised Liby­an rendi­tions exposed last year.  The spies’ argu­ment is that hav­ing to pro­duce evid­ence in their own defence would dam­age that ever-flex­ible but curi­ously vague concept of “nation­al secur­ity”.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

The spooks have tra­di­tion­ally used the “nation­al secur­ity” argu­ment as the ulti­mate get-out-of-jail-free card.  It has nev­er been leg­ally defined, but it is unfail­ingly effect­ive with judges and politi­cians.

We saw sim­il­ar argu­ments dur­ing the post-9/11 secur­ity flap, when many ter­ror­ist sus­pects were scooped up and interned in high secur­ity Brit­ish pris­ons such as Bel­marsh on the say-so of face­less intel­li­gence officers. No evid­ence needed to be adduced, nor could it be chal­lenged. The sub­sequent con­trol order sys­tem was equally Kafkaesque.

That’s not to say that cer­tain interned indi­vidu­als might not have been an act­ive threat to the UK.  How­ever, in the “good” old days (god, I sound ancient), sus­pects would have had evid­ence gathered against them, been tried by a jury, con­victed and imprisoned. The sys­tem was nev­er per­fect and evid­ence could be egre­giously with­held, but at least appeals were pos­sible, most not­ably in the case of the Birm­ing­ham Six.

Since 9/11 even breath­ing the word “ter­ror­ist” has meant that all these his­tor­ic com­mon law prin­ciples seem to have been jet­tisoned.  Even before the pro­posed enshrine­ment of “secret courts” in the new Bill, they are already being used in the UK — the Spe­cial Immig­ra­tion Appeal Com­mis­sion (SIAC) tribunals hear secret evid­ence and the defendant’s chosen law­yer is not allowed to attend. Instead a spe­cial, gov­ern­ment-approved advoc­ate is appoin­ted to “rep­res­ent the interests” of the defend­ant who is not allowed to know what his accusers have to say. And there was no appeal.

But all this is so unne­ces­sary.  The powers are already in place to be used (and abused) to shroud our notion­ally open court pro­cess in secrecy.  Judges can exclude the press and the pub­lic from court rooms by declar­ing the ses­sion in cam­era for all or part of the pro­ceed­ings.  Plus, in nation­al secur­ity cases, gov­ern­ment min­is­ters can also issue Pub­lic Interest Immunity Cer­ti­fic­ates (PIIs) that not only bar the press from report­ing the pro­ceed­ings, but can also ban them from report­ing they are gagged — the gov­ern­ment­al super-injunc­tion.

So the powers already exist to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity”.  No, the real point of the new secret courts is to ensure that the defend­ant and, par­tic­u­larly in my view, their chosen law­yers can­not hear the alleg­a­tions if based on intel­li­gence of any kind. Yet even the spies them­selves agree that the only type of intel­li­gence that really needs to be kept secret involves ongo­ing oper­a­tions, agent names, and sens­it­ive oper­a­tion­al tech­niques.

 And as for the right to be tried by a jury of your peers — for­get it.  Of course jur­ies will have no place in such secret courts.  The only time we have seen such dra­coni­an judi­cial meas­ures in the UK out­side a time of offi­cial war was dur­ing the Troubles in North­ern Ire­land — the infam­ous Dip­lock Courts — begin­ning in the 1970s and which incred­ibly were still in use this year.

I am not an apo­lo­gist of ter­ror­ism although I can under­stand the social injustice that can lead to it.  How­ever, I’m also very aware that the threat can be arti­fi­cially ramped up and manip­u­lated to achieve pre­con­ceived polit­ic­al goals.

I would sug­gest that the concept of secret courts will prove fatally dan­ger­ous to our demo­cracy.  It may start with the concept of get­ting the Big Bad Ter­ror­ist, but in more polit­ic­ally unstable or strin­gent eco­nom­ic times this concept is wide open to mis­sion creep.

We are already see­ing a slide towards expand­ing the defin­i­tion of “ter­ror­ist” to include “domest­ic extrem­ists”, act­iv­ists, single issue cam­paign­ers et al, as I have writ­ten before. And just recently inform­a­tion was leaked about a new pub­lic-private EU ini­ti­at­ive, Clean IT, that pro­poses ever more invas­ive and dra­coni­an poli­cing powers to hunt down “ter­ror­ists” on the inter­net. This pro­pos­al fails to define ter­ror­ism, but does provide for endem­ic elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance of the EU. Pure cor­por­at­ism.

Allow­ing secret courts to try people on the say-so of a shad­owy, unac­count­able and bur­geon­ing spy com­munity lands us straight back in the pages of his­tory: La Ter­reur of revolu­tion­ary France, the creepy sur­veil­lance of the Stasi, or the dis­ap­pear­ances and tor­ture of the Gestapo.

Have we learned noth­ing?

Interview for the Release newsletter, “TalkingDrugs”

An inter­view I did on behalf of LEAP this week for the news­let­ter of the UK cam­paign, Release.

Release, run by the indefatig­able Niamh East­wood, does excel­lent work provid­ing leg­al advice about drug issues, and cam­paign­ing for fairer and more com­pas­sion­ate drug laws.

The inter­view appeared in the campaign’s news­let­ter, “Talk­ing­Drugs”.

Here’s the link, and here’s the text:

Q1 What led you into think­ing that cur­rent drug policies on illi­cit drugs were fail­ing?

My jour­ney began when I was work­ing as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5 in the 1990s.  One of my roles was invest­ig­at­ing ter­ror­ist logist­ics and work­ing closely with UK Cus­toms.  I learned then that try­ing to stop the flow of illi­cit mater­i­al into the UK (wheth­er drugs, weapons, or people) is like look­ing for a needle in the pro­ver­bi­al hay­stack.  Plus there is a huge over­lap between the fund­ing of organ­ised crime and ter­ror­ist groups.

Over the last dec­ade I have become a writer, com­ment­at­or and pub­lic speak­er on a vari­ety of inter-con­nec­ted issues around intel­li­gence, the war on ter­ror, whis­tleblowers, poli­cing, and civil liber­ties.  To me, the war on drugs meshes very closely with all these top­ics.  Three years ago I was approached by LEAP to become a speak­er, and then in March this year I became a mem­ber of the inter­na­tion­al board and also the Dir­ect­or of LEAP Europe in order to con­sol­id­ate the organisation’s work here.

Q2 Do you think that there are bar­ri­ers to police officers being hon­est about the effect­ive­ness of their actions to com­bat the trade in illi­cit drugs and is the great­er dis­quiet amongst those involved in law enforce­ment about cur­rent policies than is pop­ularly per­ceived ?

Yes, abso­lutely, and it’s not just amongst the police but also the wider law enforce­ment com­munity.

LEAP sup­port­ers, approach­ing 100,000 in over 90 coun­tries around the world, include judges, law­yers, pris­on gov­ernors, cus­toms and intel­li­gence officers, and former drug czars.  With­in all these pro­fes­sions there is a tacit under­stand­ing that you toe the con­ven­tion­al line.  In my exper­i­ence, most people go into this type of work hop­ing not only to have an inter­est­ing job, but also to do some good and make a dif­fer­ence.  Many then see the social fall-out, or that friends, fam­ily or com­munity are affected by the drug wars, and many serving offi­cials do ques­tion what it is all about and what it is really achiev­ing.

How­ever, they are there to do a job, which is uphold­ing and apply­ing the law.  The cul­tur­al pres­sure with­in such groups can make it extremely dif­fi­cult on many levels for them to speak out.

Any change to the inter­na­tion­al and nation­al drug laws will have to come from the politi­cians with­in the UN and nation­ally.  LEAP increas­ingly con­trib­utes to the polit­ic­al debate and is build­ing a groundswell of sup­port inter­na­tion­ally.   Most people today will know someone who has at least tried a cur­rently illeg­al drug.  They also instinct­ively know this is mere social exper­i­ment­a­tion, relax­a­tion or, at worst, a health prob­lem.  And pen­al­isa­tion, impris­on­ment and a crim­in­al record exacer­bates rather than helps the situ­ation.

Q3 Does the poli­cing of drug pos­ses­sion impact the effect­ive­ness of poli­cing gen­er­ally and what bene­fits do you think could stem from ceas­ing to use law enforce­ment to attempt to dis­cour­age drug use?

There are mul­tiple strands to this issue: the diver­sion of police resources, the addi­tion­al crime caused by pro­hib­i­tion that is not dealt with suc­cess­fully, the diver­sion of resources from harm reduc­tion pro­grammes, the crim­in­al­isa­tion of what are essen­tially health issues, and the dis­rep­ute that res­ults for law enforce­ment.

The poli­cing of drug pos­ses­sion takes away vast resources from invest­ig­at­ing oth­er crimes such as burg­lary, rape and murder.  Yet it is largely point­less – those with a drug depend­ency need health inter­ven­tions, and there will always be replace­ments for any low-level deal­ers who are arres­ted and imprisoned.  If you arrest and con­vict a rap­ist, he will not be on the streets com­mit­ting more rapes; but if you catch a drug deal­er, you just cre­ate a job vacancy for which many will com­pete in ever more viol­ent ways for a slice of an incred­ibly luc­rat­ive mar­ket.

The UK anti-pro­hib­i­tion advocacy group, Trans­form, estim­ates that even if just can­nabis were leg­al­ised in the UK, an addi­tion­al $1.6 bil­lion would flow into the Brit­ish eco­nomy every year.  While tax raised on a con­trolled and reg­u­lated can­nabis trade is pre­dicted to provide the bulk of this ($1.2 bil­lion), $170 mil­lion would be saved from law enforce­ment, $155 mil­lion from the justice sys­tem, and $135 mil­lion from the pris­on sys­tem.

In the cur­rent eco­nom­ic situ­ation, can the UK afford not to con­sider altern­at­ives to the cur­rent drug war?

Also, as we have seen since the decrim­in­al­is­tion laws in Por­tugal since 2001 and Switzer­land since 1994, the “peace dividend” by end­ing the war on drugs would not only see a drop in prop­erty crimes (about 50% of which are com­mit­ted to fund drug depend­en­cies), it could also be used to fin­ance and extend harm reduc­tion pro­grammes.  As we have seen in the case of tobacco across the West, we do not need to ban a sub­stance to reduce its use; edu­ca­tion and treat­ment are far more effect­ive.

Finally, illeg­al drugs are avail­able to any­one who wants to buy them on the streets of the UK.  The increas­ing mil­it­ar­isa­tion of the police to fight the war on drugs, the break­down of civil liber­ties for the same reas­on (mir­ror­ing the war on ter­ror), and the wide­spread flag­rant flout­ing of the drug laws by large num­bers of the pop­u­la­tion, thereby “mak­ing an ass of the law”, has led to a break­down of trust and respect between the police and the policed. One of LEAP’s aims is to rebuild this trust, this social con­tract.

Q4 The impact on the safety of law enforce­ment per­son­nel of the ‘war on drugs’ should be an issue for oth­er mem­ber­ship organ­isa­tions rep­res­ent­ing the sec­tor, will you be reach­ing out to them to encour­age cam­paign­ing on the issue?

Safety is cer­tainly an issue, although we have been more for­tu­nate in Europe than our col­leagues in the USA, where the more pre­val­ent gun cul­ture leads to many more law enforce­ment deaths.  That said, gang viol­ence is on the rise across Europe where organ­ised crime gangs fight increas­ingly viol­ent turf battles.

Mex­ico has been one of the worst hit coun­tries in the world.  Since the ramp­ing up of the war on drugs  almost six years ago, over 62,000 men women and chil­dren have been tor­tured and murdered in that coun­try, and many of them had no involve­ment what­so­ever in the drugs trade.  In fact, LEAP USA has just suc­cess­fully par­ti­cip­ated in the Mex­ic­an Cara­van for Peace, a group of act­iv­ists and fam­il­ies high­light­ing the tragedy, that toured across the USA for a month to raise aware­ness and fin­ished with a rally in Wash­ing­ton last week.

The increas­ing viol­ence of the drugs trade and the mil­it­ar­isa­tion of the response should be of con­cern to all law enfor­cers, mem­ber­ship organ­isa­tions and allied groups work­ing in the drugs sec­tor.  We need to think urgently about how to avoid a sim­il­ar spir­al of viol­ence in Europe.   LEAP is happy to reach out to such organ­isa­tions to devel­op a more humane solu­tion.

Q5 How would you like to see LEAP in Europe devel­op and will you be look­ing to lobby European policy makers in Brus­sels?

There are already LEAP speak­ers across most European coun­tries.  We in LEAP see the organisation’s primary goal as edu­ca­tion­al.  We shall be work­ing to build up speak­ing engage­ments for a wide vari­ety of groups and audi­ences, includ­ing the polit­ic­al sec­tor, as well as strength­en­ing our media expos­ure.  We recog­nise the valu­able work Release and oth­er NGOs and advocacy groups are already doing across Europe, and hope that you will see that we offer a unique voice and pool of expert­ise that can be used to strengthen your work.

It is won­der­ful that so many organ­isa­tions and indeed gov­ern­ments around the world (par­tic­u­larly in Europe and Lat­in Amer­ica) are now focus­ing on explor­ing altern­at­ives such as decrim­in­al­is­tion and harm reduc­tion pro­grammes.  Based on our pro­fes­sion­al exper­i­ence, LEAP argues that we need, at very least, to con­sider the next logic­al step in the chain: con­trolled reg­u­la­tion of the drug mar­ket as we cur­rently do with alco­hol and tobacco.

Decrim­in­al­isa­tion may help to reduce the harm for the drug users, but leaves the drug trade in the hands of increas­ingly viol­ent glob­al organ­ised crime net­works.  Only by remov­ing the profit motive from this illi­cit trade can we end the involve­ment of the crim­in­al ele­ment and all the attend­ant viol­ence, and work to make the world safer for all.