We damn the Americans for Guantanamo, yet we are doing exactly the same thing in south-east London
Margaret Drabble spoke for much of the intelligentsia when she told the Daily Telegraph: ‘My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me like a disease.’ So severe was the infection she was unable to look at anything American without retching. ‘I can’t keep it down any longer. I detest Disneyfication, I detest Coca-Cola, I detest burgers, I detest sentimental and violent Hollywood movies that tell lies about history. I detest American imperialism, American infantilism, and American triumphalism about victories it didn’t even win.’
Worse than the Big Macs and the fizzy drinks was the indefinite detention ‘without charge or trial or access to lawyers’ of the 600 or so inmates at Guantanamo Bay, ‘the Bastille of America’. It has turned the novelist into an activist who has vowed to keep writing to Jack Straw and his successors at the Foreign Office ‘until something happens’. She isn’t alone. From the Mail on the Right – Guantanamo ‘spits in the face of what most reasonable people in this country would regard as justice’ – to the Mirror on the Left – ‘the treatment of prisoners defies decency and civilised convention’ – the campaign against imprisonment without trial has united left-wing comedians with right-wing pundits, Law Lords with poets, bishops with actresses.
It is not without its hypocrisies. If you want to find men indefinitely imprisoned without trial, you don’t have to go to Cuba. You can get them at home. Yet the internment of Arab terrorist suspects in Britain has passed largely unnoticed. There are no outraged playwrights or demands in Parliament to defend the basic principles of British justice. Civil liberties groups try periodically to make internment a cause célèbre, but find few takers. On the one hand, public pressure has forced New Labour to lobby Washington to give the British inmates in Guantanamo Bay a fair trial. On the other, public indifference has given it free rein to intern foreigners in Britain without a fair trial.
Centuries of experience have taught the British how to suspend the rule of law without an embarrassing fuss. They know that these matters must be handled with delicacy, and that the clumsy spectacles of the meretricious Yanks must be avoided. Britain hasn’t made the mistake of providing electrifying footage. Belmarsh Prison in south-east London, where most of the detainees are held, is as drab as Guantanamo is exotic. There aren’t pictures of the British detainees in fluorescent jump suits being frogmarched in manacles. Amnesty International, which brought out a report last week to mark the second anniversary of the detention, points out that the 14 internees are held in small cells for 22 hours a day. Hardly anyone sees them, let alone photographs them. Their lawyers have got court orders stopping the press identifying most of the 14 on the grounds that their families would be identified as the families of ‘terrorists’ when no one has been convicted of terrorism before a properly constituted court. The prohibition seems compassionate, but it hobbles the media. We need names and, above all, pictures to make a story work. That there are only 14 detainees is a further reason for the silence, but there may also be a discreditable emotion at work.
It’s easy to slag off Bush; in many circles it’s social death to do anything else. It’s easy, too, to demand justice on the other side of the world. It’s harder to demand that the prison doors open in Woolwich to let out men the Government swears have links to al-Qaeda. A cowardly voice whispers: ‘What if they’re right? What if they know they’re al-Qaeda and just can’t cut through the legal red tape? What if we win, and they’re freed to pull off the big one – not in New York or Istanbul but here in Britain? We’ll have blood on our hands, maybe our blood. Better and safer to shut up and concentrate on the ghastly Americans.’
Working out whether the Government has got it right is difficult. By suspending trial by jury, the Home Office has made it impossible to be certain. The 14 aren’t prisoners of war. They’re foreign nationals who would ordinarily be deported but can’t be thrown out because they might face torture or execution back home. Oddly, the Government says if they can find a safe country they’re free to leave, and two have done so. If these men are members of an international terrorist network that plans attacks all over the world, why are they being allowed to go? Why let ‘suspected international terrorists’ take their local knowledge of Britain overseas and pass it to others? The loophole suggests that most of the internees are either small fry or no fry.
The evidence against them has only been given in outline in public. Neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to hear the detail. At the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which has usurped the place of the courts, both suspects and briefs have to leave the room when the basis for internment is discussed. Government-appointed defence lawyers, who haven’t taken instructions from the suspects, move in. They can’t check the accuracy of the ‘charges’ with the ‘accused’ because they would be endangering national security by revealing confidential information. They are working in the dark. As always when the proper forms of law are suspended, a tottering and bizarrely complicated structure has to be erected to take their place.
The detainees fall into two groups: Abu Qatada and the rest. Qatada is without doubt a figure of global importance in the Islamic death cults. He found asylum in Britain after being sentenced to death in Jordan for his alleged role in bomb attacks. He is an inspiration who provides spiritual sanction for war. His sermons attract the foulest people. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is meant to have listened to them. Mohamed Atta and two others who hijacked planes on 11 September had 18 videos in their Hamburg flat of Qatada preaching. One sticks in the mind. In 1995, he told Islamic fanatics in Algeria that it was legitimate to make threats against ‘the wives and children of the apostates [that is, the families of the servants of the ruthless Algerian government] in order to stop the oppression of women prisoners and brothers’.
Many of the claims against him are undoubtedly true, and all of them may be true. But if they are, there should be no difficulty in charging him in open court under the sweeping 2000 Terrorism Act. It made the most trivial assistance to a banned organisation a criminal offence.
Qatada says that he isn’t a supporter of terrorism and has merely given religious authority to the right to resist oppression. It’s impossible to be certain, but this line of defence probably explains why the rule of law has been suspended in the remaining cases. In, say, Chechnya, there are both al-Qaeda fighters who would kill pretty much anyone pretty much anywhere on the planet and Chechens engaged in a recognisable war of national liberation. Telling them apart is hard, and the other 13 men could argue that they were doing no more than passing money to Chechens fighting a legitimate war rather than bank-rolling international terrorism. It’s a fine distinction, but I can think of no other way of making it than by testing the evidence in open court.
The nature of that evidence is the second reason for the secret hearings. Just how dubious it can be came out in one of the few public sessions. A secret serviceman who could only be identified as Witness A was asked whether information extracted under torture could be used in Britain. He said that it could. If a tortured suspect broke under interrogation in one of the Gulf States and implicated a man living in London as co-conspirator, MI5 would have to assess the confession. If it thought it was ‘reliable’ it would tell the Home Secretary to pack the man off to Belmarsh. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission had no problem with forced confessions. ‘It may well appear that to admit such evidence would result in unfairness,’ it ruled. ‘But it does not in our view justify the conclusion that information obtained by a third party [by the use of torture] is inadmissible.’
I’m sorry if I sound hyperbolic, but this is extraordinary. For the first time in centuries evidence collected under torture – albeit the torture of a witness in a foreign country – can be used to imprison suspects in Britain without trial. An awful lot of ground is being given up without much of a fight.
As I said earlier, it’s far harder to fight than to make the near-mandatory denunciations of the Americans. Belmarsh is our Guantanamo, and if groups like Amnesty were to succeed in freeing its internees, there may be a price. In the end, you have to decide if you believe in the presumption of innocence and the rule of law or not. Whether you are serious or just striking a pose.