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7 January 2011

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.

By Paul Donovan

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.

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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.