Authoritarian control orders are corrupting our justice system

It’s time to end control orders and detention without trial – and restore the rule of law.

The human rights activist Bruce Kent recently called for an Algerian man who has been held under a variety of forms of detention – including control orders – to be tried or released.

"It shocks me that someone can be detained in this way without any chance of defending himself against whatever accusations there may be. This is not the justice I was brought up to believe in," said Kent.

The call came just as the coalition government was debating what to do about control orders.

The man, Mustapha Taleb, had been subject to a control order over the period of his detention since January 2003. At present he is being held in control-order-style conditions, following the efforts of successive govenments to deport him to Algeria.

Taleb fled Algeria in 2000 after being arrested and tortured in that country. He was granted political asylum a year later. In January 2003, he was arrested on suspicion of involvement with what became known as the "ricin plot" in north London. The subsequent trial in 2005 found that there was no ricin or plot, and Taleb was among those acquitted of all charges.

Following the acquitta,l he was free for five months before being detained again in prison until January 2006. He was then placed under strict house arrest in north London. In August 2006, he was again sent back to prison until July 2008, before being released into control-order-style conditions again.

He has never been told what accusations, if any, there are against him to justify his detention.

Taleb is not the only individual being held in such conditions. I visited another Algerian man, known only as G, some four years ago. He was under similar restrictive conditions, living in a flat with his wife and two children. There were limited times when he could go out of the flat.

He wore a tag and had to check in with a security monitoring company several times a day. There was no internet access allowed and he could only be visited by individuals vetted by the Home Office.

Today he is in exactly the same situation as he was four years ago, still under control-order-style detention, living under the threat that he could be returned to Algeria, where he would face torture and imprisonment. The only route out of this horror for both G and Taleb appears to lie with the European Court of Human Rights. Both have been held on the basis of the oversight of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission tribunal.

The crucial point about these cases, and indeed the whole control order system, is the dangerous precedent that has been created of detaining people without trial. The whole debate over control orders has been framed in terms of the need to find an alternative. It would seem that we have conceded to the truly Kafkaesque situation of holding people without telling them what they are accused of, seemingly indefinitely in some cases, on the basis of unseen intelligence.

It is this point that is so crucial, because once it is accepted that some people are so dangerous that they can be detained outside the rite of habeas corpus, that principle can be extended to all sorts of categories. What the control-order regime has revealed is the whole paraphernalia of the security state, which has been allowed to grow inexorably under the aegis of the war on terror. It is a true glimpse of the authoritarian police state growing up in the shadows of our justice system.

The time has come to restore the rule of law in the UK, to get rid of control orders and the other hybrid forms of detention based on the same concept. The threat from Islamic terrorism is nothing like as great as the kind this country suffered from the IRA during the Troubles, so why have such measures been taken, which go way beyond anything ever contemplated during that very real war?

A return of the rule of law would mean that an individual can be detained only so long as the courts will allow. If the accusers do not have evidence that will stand up in court, the individual concerned should be allowed to go free. To paraphrase a former prime minister, it is now time to restore the rules of the game.

Paul Donovan, a freelance journalist, has documented the steady erosion of liberty and the extension of measures such as detention without trial over the past 15 years.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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