British woman faces death sentence

Should it be one law for “us” and another for “them”?

A British woman, Shivaun Orton, has been arrested in Malaysia for possession of drugs including cannabis, amphetamines and Ecstasy. The drugs were found when police raided the backpacker resort that she and her Malay husband run in the east coast town of Cherating. As the haul included over 15g of heroin, she faces death by hanging if convicted.

It cannot be long before the inevitable cries of outrage that a British national, the "daughter of a nuclear physicist" no less (code: she's middle-class, not some ill-educated scrubber with loose morals with whose fate the right-wing papers would be less concerned), might suffer such a fate.

No doubt the possible penalty, and by extension Malaysia, will be described as "barbaric" and "medieval", and every instance of courts in the country producing ludicrous, over-the-top judgments will be dredged up and presented as the norm, rather than the exceptions that they are. Oh, and there will also be no misgivings at all about the prospect of her husband receiving the same sentence.

I touched on this issue last year when two US citizens were freed from a North Korean jail after crossing the border illegally and when a convicted drug-smuggler, Samantha Orobator, was allowed to return to the UK from Laos to serve the rest of her sentence. As I wrote at the time:

The coverage of these cases, as so often when westerners are arrested in developing countries, focused almost exclusively on outrage at the conditions in which they were held and the sentences they faced. The garb of human rights hid a less pleasant, unspoken assumption: your laws shouldn't apply to us.

Even though, as I pointed out, "few will dispute that a state has the right to police its borders or impose penalties for drug trafficking . . . many westerners seem to think, 50 years after losing their empires, that they should still have carte blanche to wander the earth held to a different set of rules from those of the populations they deign to visit." Two examples then followed:

Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made this point well in his memoir From Third World to First. "In 1993, an 18-year-old schoolboy, Michael Fay, and his friends went on a spree, vandalising road and traffic signs and spray-painting more than 20 cars. When charged in court, he pleaded guilty and his lawyer made a plea for leniency. The judge ordered six strokes of the cane and four months in jail."

Such sentences are common in the region; we hear nothing about them. But "the American media went berserk at the prospect of an American boy being caned on his buttocks by cruel Asians in Singapore", said Lee. Suggestions were made that the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation be moved from Singapore over this "barbarity".

The second example is particularly relevant to the Shivaun Orton case:

"Barbaric" was the very word bandied about by the Australian premier Bob Hawke when Malaysia hanged two of his countrymen for drug trafficking in 1986. But the more telling view was that of one of the defendants, Kevin Barlow. "Do you reckon they'll hang us?" asked his co-defendant, Brian Chambers. No, replied Barlow. "The Malaysians won't hang white guys."

Exchange the word "white" for "western" and you have, it seems to me, the real truth behind the protestations whenever one of our nationals gets banged up abroad for doing something they know they shouldn't have done. It's OK for them, but not for us.

As it happens, I don't think Mrs Orton will be hanged if she's found guilty – partly because she's a woman and the mother of two boys, and partly because the current prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, does not share the desire to take every opportunity to upset western sensibilities that characterised Dr Mahathir, who was in power at the time of the 1986 case.

Najib is from the old aristocratic, anglophile elite and was educated at Malvern College and Nottingham University. Whereas Dr M would have regarded David Cameron as colonising-class material and would have been very happy to irritate and embarrass him, Dato' Sri Najib prefers smooth relations and will not want the bad publicity that would accompany the hanging of a British national. If she is found guilty, pressure from the top will almost certainly result in a lesser sentence.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. Perhaps the commentariat will decide that UK citizens breaking laws abroad just have to take the consequences, like locals do. If there is an outcry, though, and calls emerge for David Cameron or William Hague to intervene, my question remains the same – how on earth do we justify the expectation that it should be one law for "us" and another for "them"?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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