Saturday, February 21, 2009 

Weekend links.

Seems like an exceptionally quiet weekend, so let's keep this short and reasonably sweet. The BNP's council by-election victory in Sevenoaks is causing concern - but by some of the coverage you'd imagine they were on the edge of a major breakthrough. They are not - and are not even close to it. There are worries that they might be able to win a European parliament seat, due to how the Europe elections are based on proportional representation, but even if they do, there is so little coverage, even in the broadsheet press, of affairs in Brussels and Strasbourg that the only victory will be one of breaking into mainstream attention again. We of course need to engage with those who are sympathetic towards the BNP, and challenge the party's smears and lies, with the old tales about how the foreigners are stealing all the houses apparently being top of concerns in Sevenoaks, but going in the opposite direction only helps them further. Blairwatch comments further on the upcoming Euro elections.

Elsewhere on the blogs, Paul Linford provides his usual weekly article, this time on how Gordon Brown's authority is draining away, Sunny critiques the Civitas report on Islamic schools in typical fashion, while Shiraz Socialist asks if anyone will support the right for Fred Phelps to come here as they did Geert Wilders - I would, as would Rhetorically Speaking and the Heresiarch. Lee Griffin further notes Italy's dissent into authoritarianism, while Hopi Sen agrees that Brown should apologise - just not necessarily in the way that some want him to.

In the papers, Peter Oborne argues that this is a government in collapse, while Matthew Parris suggests that voters simply don't care any more. Deborah Orr writes on the Cambridge review into primary schooling, while Geoffrey Wheatcroft makes a point which ought to be obvious: that money and good judgement don't mix. Article of the weekend is undoubtedly Ben Goldacre's systematic destruction of the claims that British soldiers had seized £50m worth of heroin in Afghanistan, but it's well worth pointing out that Transform had already done exactly the same on Wednesday.

As for the worst tabloid article of the weekend we have a few contenders. One is the Sun's editorial comment on Jade Goody. It's worth quoting the whole nauseating thing in full and then comparing it against some previous comments from the Sun on the now sainted Goody:

LET’S all raise a toast to Jade Goody tomorrow as her dying wish comes true.

Clad in a gorgeous cream silk gown, Jade will become a bride and marry her devoted sweetheart Jack Tweed.

Tragically, there will be no anniversaries for Jade and Jack.

Death will part them too soon.

The wedding night Justice Secretary Jack Straw is letting them spend together may be one of very few they have as man and wife.

But tomorrow, Jade insists, is for joy not despair.

Amid the cake and champagne, the laughter and the kisses, Jade will know the special happiness that only a girl on her wedding day can experience.

By her side will be her proud young sons. Surrounding her will be the family, friends and celebs she loves the most.

The Sun’s warmest congratulations go to Jade and Jack on their marriage.

And Jade should be uplifted by the huge response to our Jade’s Legacy campaign, which aims to cut deaths from cervical cancer.

As Jade’s life moves towards its close, Britain has taken her more than ever to its heart.

When she walks down that aisle tomorrow, the nation will be by her side.

Also worth remembering is that her partner was in prison for a vicious assault on a man with a golf club - someone who would otherwise be derided in the Sun as a despicable yob is given the front page to declare his love, via Max Clifford, naturally.

That isn't the worst though. Another contender is the perennial favourite, Amanda Platell, who is livid about school children being asked to think about something. Such thought experiments can only lead to subversion and a destruction of our morals and values. Winner though for sheer hilarious hypocrisy is the Mail publishing an article by a former Cosmopolitan editor titled "Degrading, disgusting, and demeaning: I'm ashamed of modern women's magazines." That's also a perfect description of Femail, and here are some of its greatest hits.

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Friday, February 20, 2009 

Scum-watch: Pathetic apoplexy over Qatada's compensation.

It was to be expected that regardless of the level of payout, the Sun was bound to be outraged by the paying of compensation to Abu Qatada and the other men detained illegally at Belmarsh. Quite why it or anyone else is so surprised that the ECHR awarded compensation is a mystery: a more flagrant breach of both the right to liberty and a fair trial is difficult to imagine, regardless of the threat the men are said to pose. These norms and values are however ones which the Sun and some politicians have no intention of respecting when they are so apparently inimical to common sense.

The Sun's opening paragraph could hardly be more partisan:

A BARMY decision to award terror suspect Abu Qatada and eight others £75,000 for a “breach” of their human rights sparked outrage yesterday.

Barmy and most certainly not a "breach" then. You have to wonder how the Sun would respond to a British citizen abroad being detained without charge for over three years, or indeed to a British citizen not accused of links with terrorism being detained here for over three years without charge. One suspects that their attitude might well be entirely different. That Qatada is a "terror suspect" is irrelevant: he has the same rights as everyone else, and to suggest otherwise is part of where we've gone wrong in attempting to fight the terror threat. Those accused of links with terrorism are fundamentally criminals, and need to be declared as such, with normal criminal prosecution taken against them. That this is itself is controversial is partially why compensation has now rightly been paid out.

Naturally, comparisons with the victims of the 7/7 attacks are brought in:

Survivors of the 7/7 attacks on London in 2005 last night compared the handout to their own battle for compensation.

Jackie Putnam, 58, from Huntingdon, Cambs, suffered memory loss and trauma.

She said: “It seems the rules are there to protect the bad guys and the good ones get pushed aside. The suspects have won justice but there has been little or none of it for the victims of 7/7.”

Victim’s dad Mr Foulkes, of Oldham, Greater Manchester, added: “I despair when I hear of a decision like this, then I get angry because it rubs salt in the wounds.”

None of those given compensation have any link whatsoever to 7/7 to begin with, unless you can somehow make a case that they were inspired by Qatada, something I haven't seen made before. Equally, Putnam might well be referring to justice in the sense of bringing those other than bombers themselves involved to book, but if she's referring purely to compensation then there is no real comparison. Back in 2007 the government had already paid out over £3 million to the victims of the attacks, while another £12 million from a dedicated charitable relief fund had also been distributed, sums which put the total of £75,000 and £2,500 to Qatada into stark relief.

For some unfathomable reason, David Cameron also has to stick his nose in. His contribution would be hilarious if it wasn't both so dire and craven:

Unbelievably, taxpayers are going to have to pay him and other terrorist suspects thousands in compensation for detaining them.

It could have been more, but I resent every penny.

Taxpayers can directly blame Cameron for having to pay him compensation: while he was absent or abstained from the vote on the legalisation which introduced indefinite detention without charge, he subsequently voted in 2004 for the renewal of it. Also, why is it unbelievable? Does Cameron not think that detaining anyone without charge indefinitely is beyond the pale?

You have to shake your head at his sheer shamelessness.

He comes to Britain illegally — we let him stay. In the aftermath of 9/11 we detain him fearing he was planning something.

We say he can leave detention if he leaves the country. He doesn’t.

He drags us through appeals at our own courts and the European Court and we have to pay him for the pleasure.

It's about time we challenged this nonsense about him coming here illegally - by definition the vast majority of those who come here and subsequently seek asylum enter the country illegally, mainly because they have no legal way of doing so. His entry was on a false passport, and if we want to be really picky about it, it was a Conservative government which let him stay. He wasn't detained because we feared he was planning something - he was detained simply because of his links to terrorism. Likewise, why on earth would he leave detention when he's a Palestinian by nationality and so cannot return there, and also quite understandably doesn't want to return to Jordan where he faces potential mistreatment and an unfair trial. Nowhere else will take him, hence he's stuck here. He drags us through all his layers of appeal, as is his right.

This case was not even about whether he might be tortured if returned home — just that he might not get a fair trial by our standards.

Why should it be our responsibility and what should we do about it?

Actually it was about whether he might be tortured - just that the judges rejected that part of his argument, while the appeal court accepted he would not face a fair trial, a decision now overturned by the Lords. Does Qatada not deserve a fair trial "by our standards"?

First, we should have stronger border controls. A Conservative government will set up a dedicated Border Police force.

If dangerous people slip through, we should bring them to justice.

And will this border force stop those with false passports getting in and then claiming asylum? Of course not.

A Conservative government will tear up the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, so we can deal with human rights issues more sensibly.

It makes a mockery of human rights if we can’t protect ourselves against people who are out to destroy them for everyone else.

Will the Conservatives also then be withdrawing from the Council of Europe, and thus leaving the ECHR altogether? All the HRA does is institute the ECHR in British law; all tearing it up will do is mean those seeking justice will have to wait far longer before they receive it. We also have "protected ourselves" from Qatada, as the Lords judgement showed. The people who make a real mockery of human rights are those that deny they are both universal and that want to make it more difficult for the average person to seek recompense, which is exactly what the Conservatives' position will do.

On then to the Scum's incredibly poorly argued leader:

YESTERDAY was a humiliation for Britain.

We have been ordered by Europe to pay thousands to terror suspects such as Abu Qatada simply because we locked them up to keep our streets safe.

Note that throughout the Sun claims we've been ordered to do this by "Europe". The ECHR does not represent Europe: it is simply a European institution, one which we had a major hand in creating. The Sun's constant conflation of the EU with the ECHR is both misleading and almost certainly deliberate, designed to cause further apoplexy at unaccountable institutions when it simply isn't the case. It also wasn't a "humiliation": the real humiliation was that we were the only nation in Europe post 9/11 which felt that the threat to us was so serious that we had to abandon our own long-held values and liberties, while all the others got on perfectly as they had been, despite similar threats to them also. The idea that we locked up Qatada and the others to keep our streets safe is also ludicrous: if we'd really wanted to do that we would have prosecuted them, not detained them illegally and afterwards even allowed Qatada out on bail.

Worse, this disgraceful ruling means our money could well end up funding weapons to attack our own Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Qatada and eight other extremists must be paid £75,000 between them in compensation and costs, rules Europe’s crackpot Human Rights Court.

Who is to say the money won’t be recycled into the back pockets of al-Qaeda?

Considering that four of those given compensation have already been deported, that Qatada is in prison and that the others are still on control orders, the chances of any of the money going on weapons to attack forces or to al-Qaida is incredibly slim to non-existent. Even if some did, I hate to break it to the Sun but £2,500 doesn't buy a lot of weaponry; it might barely cover a couple of decent guns. That al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have other rather more dependable sources of cash then those locked up over here is something of a understatement. The costs of course won't go to the men, but rather to their lawyers.

This is the lowest moment since Labour’s catastrophic decision to enforce European human rights laws in Britain.

We have to go cap in hand to a monster like Abu Qatada with a cheque from the very British taxpayers he wants murdered.

The lowest moment since the last lowest moment, obviously. The only thing catastrophic about the HRA to the Sun is that it potentially affects its business model, as we have noted in the past. If we didn't want to have to pay Qatada compensation, we shouldn't have acted illegally; it's pretty damn simple.

Europe’s human rights laws have made this country a laughing stock. We could be funding terrorists to buy guns to shoot our own soldiers.

Is that the third time in a very short article that the Sun's made the same argument? Hasn't that barrel been scraped enough? Do I really need to say again that "Europe's" human rights laws are as much our creation as anyone else's?

We can’t endure the shame of this any longer. We have to change the law.

Britain’s safety must come before pandering to Europe.

So, as previously stated, we're going to both abolish the HRA and withdraw from the ECHR, yes? The idea that we're pandering in any way to Europe is ludicrous: we're simply operating as every other democracy in Europe does, including the authoritarian likes of Russia, which is also signed up to the ECHR. The idea that we would withdraw from it while Russia stayed would make us the real laughing stock, a country which abandons its principles to fight a pathetic threat that has been ridiculously exaggerated. The Sun, as ever, only has its own real interest at heart.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009 

Even "terrorist suspects" deserved more.

It must have come as a great disappointment to the Daily Mail hacks that despite their predictions that Abu Qatada and the others illegally detained without charge at Belmarsh from 2002 to 2005 were about to receive hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation from the European Court of Human Rights that the actual amount turned out to be a rather less outrageous £2,500, rising to over £3,000 for those detained longest. Even this miserly amount was condemned by the Conservatives as "horrifying", when the only thing horrifying about it was that it wasn't far far higher.

In that, the ECHR seems to have decided to be cautious. In its ruling it even accepted the frankly bogus assertion from the government, used to justify the detention without charge for foreign "terrorist suspects" who supposedly couldn't be tried, that there was a "public emergency threatening the life of the nation". This country has only ever faced a public emergency threatening the life of the nation once, from 1939 up until 1944, when the possibility of the Nazis launching an invasion had drastically rescinded. The very notion that somehow the likes of Abu Qatada and the other detainees posed a threat similar to then was insulting in the extreme.

We really ought to set out in detail what the detention without charge or trial amounted to. It meant that someone (as long as they were a foreign national, or in Qatada's case, stripped of their asylum status so they could be designated as one) could be accused of being involved in terrorism, where either the evidence was inadmissable or too flimsy to be brought before a court, and on that basis locked up indefinitely in one our flagship highest security prisons. You were not allowed to know what the evidence was against you, in order to challenge it; your case was instead dealt with by a special advocate appointed by the court. In short, you could only really challenge your detention as a whole by arguing that there was no real threat to the life of the nation, and that therefore the derogation from article 5 of the ECHR was unlawful. This was what the law lords ruled in December 2004. The entire Kafkaesque situation had a devastating effect on the detainees' mental health, as could have been predicted; almost all of them were prescribed anti-depressants, another attempted suicide and Abu Rideh, one of the few to be named and also awarded compensation today, repeatedly harmed himself. He was last known to be seriously ill from a hunger strike in protest at his continuing restriction of liberty under a control order. A stateless Palestinian confined to a wheelchair, the idea that he posed a threat to anyone was always laughable. Yet he too along with the others was only given a small lump sum as the ECHR ruled that their treatment did not amount to inhuman or degrading treatment.

Alan Travis points out the staggering difference between payouts, mentioning that the ECHR had previously awarded £5,500 to a British man who had been unlawfully detained for only 6 days. Some of those held were kept in custody for over 3 years before being released onto the only slightly less onerous control orders. In some cases this amounts to just over £2 compensation for each day spent illegally in custody. Put it this way: if this had happened to British citizens, and not those accused of involvement in terrorism, regardless of the fact that none have ever had to face the accusations in an actual trial, they would have been looking at compensation in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands, as Qatada had initially demanded. The ECHR seems to have decided not to inflame the tabloids further than they already have been; politically wise perhaps, but cowardly in its own way.

Less cowardly was another part of the ruling, which has finally struck a blow directly against the process of the Special Immigration Appeals Committees, where those before them are routinely denied access to the evidence held against them, making it almost impossible for them to be able to adequately challenge it. The ECHR ruled that in some of the cases, although not in all, that this was constituted another breach of article 5. It's unclear what this means for the continuation of SIAC: the ECHR accepted that where more extended information had been provided to those detained without charge, that there had not been breach of the right to a fair trial. This most likely means that the government, rather than being forced to scrap what amounts to little more than a kangaroo court, albeit an independent one, will simply have to hand over slightly more information than it otherwise would have done. A partial victory it might be, but a welcome one nonetheless.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009 

Abu Qutata?

The somewhat surprising decision by the House of Lords to overturn Abu Qatada's successful appeal against his deportation to Jordan is a faintly disturbing one. Qatada's appeal, although based on what he claims would be breaches of various articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, was only upheld on article 6, the right to a fair trial. The Special Immigration Appeals Committee, which hears evidence in secret and where the appellants are represented by special advocates, had already held that despite Jordan's undoubted deficiencies in its legal system, Qatada's deportation could only be thrown out if there was likely to be a "flagrant" breach of his right to a fair trial under article 6.

The law lords, in turn, have agreed with the initial decision and threw out the appeal court's ruling that SIAC had erred in not putting enough weight on the possibility that the evidence against Qatada was the result of torture. Lord Phillips, in the ruling, argues (paragraph 153):

I do not accept, however, the conclusion that he has derived from this, namely that it required a high degree of assurance that evidence obtained by torture would not be used in the proceedings in Jordan before it would be lawful to deport Mr Othman to face those proceedings. As Buxton LJ observed, the prohibition on receiving evidence obtained by torture is not primarily because such evidence is unreliable or because the reception of the evidence will make the trial unfair. Rather it is because “the state must stand firm against the conduct that has produced the evidence". That principle applies to the state in which an attempt is made to adduce such evidence. It does not require this state, the United Kingdom, to retain in this country to the detriment of national security a terrorist suspect unless it has a high degree of assurance that evidence obtained by torture will not be adduced against him in Jordan. What is relevant in this appeal is the degree of risk that Mr Othman will suffer a flagrant denial of justice if he is deported to Jordan. As my noble and learned friend Lord Hoffmann said in Montgomery v H M Advocate [2003] 1 AC 641, 649

“…an accused who is convicted on evidence obtained from him by torture has not had a fair trial. But the breach of article 6(1) lies not in the use of torture (which is, separately, a breach of article 3) but in the reception of the evidence by the court for the purposes of determining the charge".

The reason why this decision is so troubling is obvious: the Lords have not only ruled that they accept that the trial Qatada is likely to face in Jordan would not reach the standards we would demand under article 6, but also that it's additionally likely that the evidence against him is the product of torture, as he himself claims. This however does not still add up to what the Lords would consider to be a "flagrant" breach of article 6, which is the threshold at which deporting Qatada to Jordan would be unlawful.

Qatada is quite understandably taking his case to his last port of call, the European Court itself, where the ruling could quite possibly turn out to be another landmark, similar to Chalal vs United Kingdom. Nothing should as yet be ruled out, as the House of Lords ruling is in itself something of a surprise, and one which has been criticised by all the main human rights groups.

It has to be said that it is a horrifically difficult decision to have to make, one which Lord Hope authoratitavely comments on at the beginning of his own argument, something well worth quoting in full:

209. Most people in Britain, I suspect, would be astonished at the amount of care, time and trouble that has been devoted to the question whether it will be safe for the aliens to be returned to their own countries. In each case the Secretary of State has issued a certificate under section 33 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Immigration Act 2001 that the aliens’ removal from the United Kingdom would be conducive to the public good. The measured language of the statute scarcely matches the harm that they would wish to inflict upon our way of life, if they were at liberty to do so. Why hesitate, people may ask. Surely the sooner they are got rid of the better. On their own heads be it if their extremist views expose them to the risk of ill-treatment when they get home.

210. That however is not the way the rule of law works. The lesson of history is that depriving people of its protection because of their beliefs or behaviour, however obnoxious, leads to the disintegration of society. A democracy cannot survive in such an atmosphere, as events in Europe in the 1930s so powerfully demonstrated. It was to eradicate this evil that the European Convention on Human Rights, following the example of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, was prepared for the Governments of European countries to enter into. The most important word in this document appears in article 1, and it is repeated time and time again in the following articles. It is the word “everyone". The rights and fundamental freedoms that the Convention guarantees are not just for some people. They are for everyone. No one, however dangerous, however disgusting, however despicable, is excluded. Those who have no respect for the rule of law - even those who would seek to destroy it - are in the same position as everyone else.

211. The paradox that this system produces is that, from time to time, much time and effort has to be given to the protection of those who may seem to be the least deserving. Indeed it is just because their cases are so unattractive that the law must be especially vigilant to ensure that the standards to which everyone is entitled are adhered to. The rights that the aliens invoke in this case were designed to enshrine values that are essential components of any modern democratic society: the right not to be tortured or subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to liberty and the right to a fair trial. There is no room for discrimination here. Their protection must be given to everyone. It would be so easy, if it were otherwise, for minority groups of all kinds to be persecuted by the majority. We must not allow this to happen. Feelings of the kind that the aliens’ beliefs and conduct give rise to must be resisted for however long it takes to ensure that they have this protection.

That's around as detailed and sound an argument against the tabloid case for kicking them out immediately that could possibly be made. It's therefore a shame that Lords have effectively ruled that both unfair trials and evidence obtained by torture, as long as both occur outside the countries which have signed up to the ECHR and as long as the breach is not deemed to be "flagrant" are in some way acceptable. It's true that this is not their argument, which is as legally sound as it could possibly be, but that is in effect what they have decided. It comes, as we have seen, at a time when our own connivance with torture is being exposed as never before, when questions are being raised about how deeply involved we have been during the initial stage of the so-called war on terror with almost routine breaches of international law. It gives the impression, however undeserved, that our own values concerning such practices are becoming more jaded and diluted just when the opposite should be the case.

Fundamentally, the extended legal drama concerning Qatada should not have ever even began. If Qatada is as dangerous as the government claims he is, and if he is indeed guilty of inciting racial hatred and radicalising Muslims as he is accused of doing, the question remains why he cannot be tried here. Similarly, we still don't know just how involved Qatada was with our security services, when there are claims in the public domain that he was a double agent, albeit one it seems who is still reasonably well respected within takfirist jihadist circles. If the evidence against him cannot currently be considered outside of closed sessions, then intercept evidence needs to be introduced, although it needs to be in any event urgently. Both of these things should have been considered and potentially implemented before we resorted to simply getting rid of him, back to a country with a poor human rights record that by our own courts' admission would not reach our own standards regarding a fair trial. Instead we seem to be making compromises regarding torture that we need not be. That is an indictment of our politicians, rather than our courts of law.

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Well, that went well...

You would be forgiven for thinking that the liquid doom trial accused just aren't meant to be found guilty of conspiring to murder by blowing apart airliners - just a day after their retrial began, the jury ends up being discharged for "legal reasons". We can only speculate as to why, as if it was only something affecting one juror they could possibly have been replaced, considering the very early stage the trial was at. As noted yesterday, the security services and government must really be hoping that it's third time lucky.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009 

How low can we go?

It's quite quickly becoming apparent why the government has been so desperate to prevent the full details coming out regarding the torture of Binyam Mohamed, with it attempting to pass the buck onto the United States, claiming that to release the documents would threaten our intelligence links with that country - the truth now appears to be that we have been directly complicit in the torture of British citizens in Pakistan since after 9/11.

Allegations really don't come much more serious than those being made in today's Guardian, based on the testimony of an MI5 officer during the court case concerning the release of the documents last year. In what appears to amount to a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" approach, MI5 officers questioned detainees that had been at the least ruffed up and at the worst tortured without expressing any concern for their well-being or bothering with such slight concerns as whether their detention itself was legal. This doesn't seem to have been an ad hoc approach, but rather one which was actively discussed and decided upon by security service lawyers and Whitehall officials. Moreover, in Mohamed's case it appears that MI5 actively cooperated with his rendition to Morocco, or at least knew it was going to happen, where he was brutally tortured, something which it has always denied, although it has previously admitted to giving information to the Americians which was subsequently used during his torture. To top all of this off, David Miliband actively solicited a letter from the US state department which confirmed his claim made to the judges in the case that if the documents were released, the US would stop intelligence cooperation. Miliband then in parliament directly contradicted himself, claiming that the US authorities had done nothing of the sort, which has itself prompted the case to be re-examined.

We did already know that our own intelligence services had been involved in the US programme of "extraordinary rendition", when the CIA helpfully temporarily disposed of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, former associates of Abu Qutada, who were arrested and taken to Guantanamo after they left the UK for Gambia. We knew from Craig Murray that our government had no qualms whatsoever about using "intelligence" which had its source in the torture of opposition figures in Uzbekistan, and that the same practice was doubtless in place across the globe. These latest revelations though go beyond all that, into direct complicity with the active torture of British subjects and citizens in a third country, with MI5 and the government directly collaborating and discussing how such information should be used and whether it was legal or not. It's little wonder then just how far the government has gone in trying to stop these allegations from coming out: they are the kind which ought to result in instant sackings and resignations, in investigations and inquiries into how and why we decided that torture was fine as long a third party was doing it and those being abused were thought to be involved in terrorist activities. They are due to be investigated by both the parliamentary committee on human rights and the toothless and spineless intelligence and security committee, but neither is likely to get fully to the bottom of what seems to have gone on, and the latter especially has already been involved in a despicable whitewash of our role in rendition.

All this has come at the same time as an interview with the former MI5 head Stella Rimington, in which she warned that the government was directly exploiting and manipulating the terrorist threat in order to restrict civil liberties, a definitive report from the International Committee of Jurists, which investigates how post-9/11 human rights have been abused and sacrified in the name of security and finding terror, as well as making recommendations on how to recover from the current low ebb, and as the government seems to be determined to paint not just Muslims, but anyone with even slightly radical or controversial opinions as potential extremists, not to mention the retrial of the liquid bomb suspects. Anything Rimington says should be treated with caution, not just as an ex-spook but also because she was personally involved in the surveillance and infiltrating of any vaguely radical group during the 1980s, something which was never even close to being justified when most posed about as much threat to the British state as Timmy Mallett, but when a former agent denounces the way civil liberties are being abused, many do pay attention. Likewise, the ICJ report ruthlessly exposes just how low we have sunk in such a short space of time, while the government's latest "counter-terrorism strategy" illustrates vividly New Labour's apparent addiction to demonising those opposed to its own moral and political values rather than engaging and challenging them.

As the Heresiarch argues, we shouldn't kid ourselves that it's only in times of tension that governments and other state organisations try to exert their powers to the limit; it's what they do naturally. It's therefore ludicrous to imagine that an opposition party, however pure their values might be while out of power, would not do much the same once in it in order both to satisfy the traditional demands of the authoritarians and reactionaries in the press and to stay in government itself. It is however equally difficult to believe that the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats could possibly be any worse than Labour has been. How far, after all, does this rabbit hole go? We've had illegal war, complicity in torture and the suspension of habeas corpus. The only thing left for them to do seems to be to go in for targeted assassinations. After all, we've got to get on a level playing field with the Israelis somehow.

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It's deja vu all over again.

The retrial of the men accused of masterminding the liquid doom plot has duly commenced, not that you'd know it was a retrial because none of the news reports have deigned to mention that fact, which is curious in itself. Last time round the prosecution failed to convince the jury that the target for the bombings was to be transatlantic flights, to the disbelief of those who hadn't bothered to note that about the only evidence directly linking them to planes was the routes highlighted on a memory stick, along with diary notes written by one of the men which hinted at getting through security of some kind.

The biggest quandary concerning the retrial was whether new evidence would be introduced against the men, and while we can't tell what else the prosecution might yet have in store, the opening statement by Peter Wright QC doesn't seem to suggest that there will be. Still the prosecution is using the claim that the attacks could have caused deaths on a "unprecedented scale", when they know full well that the men hadn't even came close to actually assembling a viable device. The closest they had reached was the bomb-maker, Sarwar, apparently boiling down the hydrogen peroxide to the required dilution, but there is still a long way from there to exploding it on an airplane and successfully destroying it and killing all on board. Possibly new is the claim that others involved were overheard discussing targeting different flights from different terminals, but if it was left out the first trial that would be a remarkable oversight, and if it wasn't, it still wasn't enough to convince the first jury to convict.

All of which raises the question of what happens if this trial also ends in the jury failing to be convinced that planes were the target. Only three of the men were previously convicted of conspiracy to murder, Ali, Sarwar and Hussain, while all the others had already pleaded guilty to plotting to cause a public nuisance. Will the state keep trying until it gets the result it wants, be satisfied with the doubtless lengthy sentences still to be handed down, or go with imposing control orders? All of these options have the pitfall of exposing the initial certainty of all involved that this was the terror plot to end all terror plots as fraudlent. Despite all the survelliance of the men, the following and the huge amount of evidence sifted through, is there really nothing that conclusively links them to blowing up airliners? If so, it will be just another case of hyperbole and exaggeration about "the threat" designed to cause even greater fear in the general public, with the ban on liquids on airliners, which has always been ridiculous, even more absurd. This jury may yet convict, and the security services and the government must be desperately hoping that they do.

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Monday, February 16, 2009 

Exploitation by both sides.

Perhaps it's partially down to the Press Complaints Commission feeling the pressure after last week's Media Standards Report, which was rather intemperately responded to by both the outgoing head Christopher Meyer, and by its director, Tim Toulmin, who called it "deranged" while also claiming that the public are "pig-sick of regulation", which seems to suggest that he isn't exactly keeping up with current events, but in any event the PCC has announced that it is launching its own investigation into possible payments by both the Sun and the People to the parents of Alfie Patten, the 13-year-old at the centre of the storm concerning his apparent parentage of a child with his 15-year-old girlfriend.

The paying of the parents of a minor for material on them is explicitly forbidden by the PCC's code - except when it's decided that doing so is in the public interest. It's quite apparent that the Sun did indeed pay Patten's parents for last week's exclusive, not bothering to deny it when asked for a comment, stating that they "absolutely believe [the story] to be in the public interest". As for whether the People did, it seems unlikely that they would have been welcomed otherwise with open arms into Patten's mother's house, or that he would have been frog-marched in to answer the hack's questions, obviously incredibly uncomfortable with the situation.

Key will obviously be whether the newspapers can make a respectable argument for there being a public interest in the story, hopefully beyond the natural prurient interest. Doubtless the broken society will be invoked, the rareness of the situation, despite some columnists attempting to make out that this is happening every day of the week, and that in itself it has spawned a debate about sex education and how to prevent teenage pregnancies. Knowing the spinelessness of the PCC, I can't see any other ruling than that the public interest has indeed been served.

Sometimes though, even when such reports are arguably in the public interest, that doesn't necessarily mean they should be published. Already the story has spawned perhaps predictable claims that Patten, who looks 10 at the most rather than 13, is not the father, with two other teenagers claiming to also have slept with the child's mother. That these claims have been reported completely seriously, with those making the allegations being named, which will doubtless do plenty for their self-aggrandisement, is disturbing enough: nothing seems more inclined to break up any long-term relationship between father and mother than such rumours. Little thought has also so far gone into how those who are already struggling with getting used to the idea of being parents at such a young age will be affected by their being splashed on the front page of the biggest selling newspaper in the country, let alone how they feel about their sex lives being discussed almost pornographically. We also have no idea whatsoever on how the money which has changed hands will be used - one hopes that it will go towards the child's upbringing, but as there only seems to have been one side paid, and that indeed the money seems to have gone to both Patten's mother and his estranged father, that is also in doubt.

This blog tries not to moralise or come across as too sanctimonious, but this sad tale has all the hallmarks of only two sides profiting, that of the media, with the Sun already boasting of how their exclusive broke their previous records for online hits, and the parents, those who abjectly failed to prevent this situation from developing in the first place. Neither seems to have the interests of the children, for that is after all what they are, foremost in their minds. Patten in the photographs, holding and looking over the baby, looks absolutely bewildered, as numb and overwhelmed as you'd expect a 13-year-old looking at his first-born in the glare of the flashing lights to be. The odds on him remaining in contact with his child, let alone developing a proper relationship with either her or the mother, must be slim, especially in the full glare of the media spotlight. Those of us who are almost double his age have enough trouble with the latter on its own without even considering the prospect of additionally becoming a parent in the bargain. Exploiting such a situation for money and notoriety, as both sides appear to have done, is wrong, regardless of whether the public interest has been served or not.

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