A Sad Time for People’s Liberty Indeed!
Consultant, Access to Justice Programme, CHRI
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), guarantees everyone
the right to liberty and security of person, including freedom
from arbitrary arrest and detention. The European Convention on
Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms stipulates that persons
arrested or detained are entitled to trial within a reasonable
time or to release pending trial.
In November 2005, the British Parliament voted to double the time a person suspected of terrorism can be detained without charge to 28 days. In contrast, a murder suspect can be detained by the police for a maximum of four days without charges being framed. Restricting the period in which the police must frame charges against a detainee ensures that police do not use evidence gathering as a smokescreen for detention. It also reduces the likelihood of an innocent person spending an inordinately long time in custody.
Rather than limiting
the scope for arbitrary detention, the present trend in the British
Government is leaning towards clothing the police with more powers,
much to the detriment of hard won civil liberties and fundamental
freedoms. Effective January 2004, the length of detention without
charge was increased from 7 to 14 days for those suspected of
involvement in terrorist acts. Now the period has been further
increased to 28 days. The original proposal under the Terrorism
Bill which was spearheaded by the Prime Minister, attempted to
empower the police to detain suspected persons for up to 90 days
without having to frame charges. It fell through due to bitter
opposition by Members of Parliament cutting across party lines.
A compromise was later struck to extend the period to the present
level. Amnesty International’s response to this outcome was, “let
us not be mistaken – this is not a good result for human rights.
It is a sad day when Britain’s three major political parties are
publicly bartering over people’s liberty”.
Extension of the
pre-charge detention period is only one of the aspects of the
proposed Terrorism Bill that is being debated in the British Parliament.
The acceptance of too wide a definition of what constitutes terrorist
acts could throttle the right to free speech and legitimate dissent
in the country. Dilution of legal safeguards in the United Kingdom
does not portend well for civil liberties in the Commonwealth.
British laws are often cited as best practice by human rights
defenders in their advocacy with governments traditionally less
respectful of individual rights and fundamental freedoms. The
point was poignantly made by Shami Chakrabati of Liberty, when
she said, “things have come to a pretty pass when the country
that once defined justice for the rest of world seeks to win a
race to the bottom in fair trial standards”.
threat from terrorists and their networks is real, and governments
must be resolute in countering it. However, the response cannot
come at the price of undoing rights guarantees in national and
international law. Otherwise we may end up throwing the baby out
with the bath water.