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31 March 2003updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

When a mobile phone becomes “a terrorist article“

When a mobile phone becomes "a terrorist article"

By Neil Clark

Anti-war protest is far from finished. The government’s attempt to get us all to “rally round” in support of an illegal and immoral war has simply led to some of the most widespread outbreaks of civil disobedience seen in Britain in years.

The government has clearly been rattled, and has started to up the ante. Protesters everywhere have noticed a change to more provocative police tactics since the war began. Police in Glasgow, some of them on horseback, penned in roughly 400 people for several hours in Sauchiehall Street. In London on the day war broke out, truncheons were drawn as protesters tried to move down to Whitehall. I was deliberately tripped up by a policeman during a peaceful street protest in Oxford and threatened with arrest for attempting to retaliate.

We may still be a long way from the stage where anyone is arrested for wearing a “Give peace a chance” T-shirt (as happened in Albany, New York recently) – but it looks as if new Labour Britain is heading inexorably in that direction. Protesters at the “Flowers to Fairford” demonstration on 22 March were warned the day before the march that “lethal force” would be used to stop anyone trying to enter the USAF base. In addition, Sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act were imposed on the march, restricting the area to which the public had access. Yet more than 5,000 protesters still turned up – to be met with a thousand armed police. The deployment cost the taxpayer a quarter of a million pounds.

Recent days have also seen increased use of the draconian provisions of the Terrorism Act 2000. When the legislation was passed, many warned that it would be used to clamp down on peaceful protest. It has not taken long for the Cassandras to be proved right.

On 18 March, Section 58 of the act was invoked to arrest a peace campaigner at RAF Welford in Berkshire. Section 58, which carries a maximum penalty of ten years’ imprisonment, states: “a person commits an offence if (a) he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or (b) he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind”. Only in the Orwellian world where we all live could camping peacefully outside a military base be construed as “preparing an act of terrorism”.

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The stop-and-search provisions under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act were also used by police to board and detain coaches heading for the peace demonstration at Fairford. Three coaches were sent back to London. Section 44 empowers stop-and-search “only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism”, but does not require the police to have a “reasonable suspicion” that you are carrying any such articles. Under its provisions, police confiscated such “terrorist” articles as peace banners and mobile phones.

The Fairford demonstration was also noteworthy for the way police made extensive use of video cameras to film protesters and, in some cases, their car number plates.

A popular chant of protesters up and down Britain has been “This is just – this is just the beginning”. The indirect road to peace was closed after parliament shamefully rubber-stamped war on 18 March. But the direct, non-parliamentary route to peace remains. As civil disobedience mounts, it seems that the war is about to enter a new, even more unpredictable phase, not just in Iraq, but in Britain, too.

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