about the nature and application of the new Terrorism Act
In his opening remarks Mark Muller, chairing the meeting, said that the
discussion had been prompted by the widespread concerns about the nature
and application of the new Terrorism Act and especially its implications
for long cherished human rights and its impact on minority communities.
Parliament's ratification of the proscription of 21 international
organisations making it an offence to further their activities in any
way fundamentally offended individual human rights. No distinction was
drawn between violent and non-violent actions. The Act was a charter for
suppressing both ideas and cultural identities and compromised the country's
respected tradition of offering sanctuary to political refugees and dissenters.
While it was necessary to combat terrorism and crime, Mr Muller said,
the Act added nothing to existing criminal law whose powers were sufficient
to deal with the problems. So why was the government acting now? He feared
that the implementation of the Act may result in increasing conflict and
disorder and cited the experience of the Federal Republic of Germany where
similar bans had resulted in conflicts and had merely driven dissent underground.
The Act was ill-conceived and came notwithstanding the incorporation of
the European Human Rights Act into British law.
Mr Muller then mentioned the case of Kani Yilmaz who gained legal entry
into Britain to brief parliamentarians on the PKK's cease-fire, but
was later arrested without a warrant on the grounds that he posed a threat
to national security. This came under pressure from Turkey. This was all
long before the new Terrorism Act, but, he asked, what would be the status
of such a meeting in Parliament today? Would it now be deemed an illegal
gathering? Mr Muller recalled that 70 MP s signed a letter protesting
at Yilmaz's arrest, including current Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
He concluded that the most serious implications for human rights were
posed by an Act that made it illegal to hold a peaceful meeting called
with the intention of raising a legitimate political issue, like peace
between Turkey and the Kurds. Such was the consequences of the failure
to distinguish between violent and non-violent offences.
The first speaker, solicitor Gareth Peirce, began by saying that she found
the term "terrorist" to be an offensive one because it carried
with it a stigma. She was concerned that last year's Act redefined
the term very widely to include all protests and any activity that might
effect the health and security of any country. Last year the media had
reported almost exclusively on the Act's likely effects on road protesters,
greens and animals rights activists, but now the reality of its effects
were hitting home: it is almost entirely refugee communities who are being
targeted with the publication of the 21 proscribed groups.
Ms Peirce then drew a comparison with the way that government and police
had targeted the Irish community over 25 years when the PTA was in operation.
Thousands of Irish people had been effected: she had herself represented
dozens of people charged under the PTA and as it turned out wrongly detained
and prosecuted. To fall under the PTA was an ordeal for individuals and
their families. Travelling from Ireland and Britain was made a hazardous
task. The implications for how the new Act would be operated were clear:
the PTA targeted indiscriminately people of particular religions and nationalities.
The wider scope of the new Act, allowing the law to try cases of people
allegedly involved in terrorism abroad, was one terrifying aspect of the
Act. She wondered how lawyers in this country would ever be able to reconstruct
the specific political circumstances of a country like Algeria, Egypt
and Sri Lanka.
Every aspect of the Act raised serious questions: there was the issue
of withholding evidence on suspects vital to any defence case, but now
restricted on security grounds; the impact on peoples' behaviour
by creating a mood of fear and uncertainty with no-one really knowing
if what they were doing was illegal. Ms Peirce said that under US law
the Act would be voided for its vagueness. The Act set up a tension with
the Human Rights Act. It had redefined terrorism and human rights on ideological
lines setting up people who deserved to be seen as human by the government.
This was only those who subscribed to the UK/US model of democracy as
the best in the world, no questioning of it could be admissible. She thought
the reasons for the Act now were twofold: there were internal political
objectives and the domestic impact in its attack on inalienable rights;
it was also intended for export being proposed as a model for Europe and
already hailed in the press of foreign governments who saw it as a gift.
Blair was clearly trying to take the lead in the process of European harmonisation.
She concluded by stating bluntly that the Act did not deserve to remain
on the statute books. It had torn up the lessons of the last century and
destroyed the moral standing of the country.
Nicholas Blake QC said that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
allowed for the possibility of rebellion against tyranny and oppression.
Where laws do not protect human rights there may be just cause to resort
to forms of rebellion. There had been evidence of this in English history
and the idea had been the basis for people coming here seeking asylum
in the past. Such principles were part of the country's political
and legal traditions over some 200 years, and especially in the 19th century.
The European rebels who had engaged in the 1848 revolutions, for example,
had come to London seeking haven as refugees and at that time the idea
of rebelling against oppression was regarded as legitimate. In contrast
the new Terrorism Act was an advanced attempt to criminalise the whole
of the asylum process. The government that had been losing the debate
was now stopping legitimate debate and removing the rights of asylum.
Mr Blake was particularly concerned at the way the Act might have the
effect of eliminating the arguments about putting protection of the individual
at the centre of the law. It came in the context of a wider criminalisation
taking place. It removed the right to claim a political defence against
extradition rules. Political suspects could not be extradited, only suspects
accused of non-political crimes could be. He said that at the UN, Britain
had failed to win the debate in defining terrorism as a non-political
offence, but was now changing its own laws. The effects of the new Act
meant that it would now be difficult for someone to claim asylum. Indeed
what was said in an asylum application could conceivably lead to the same
person being prosecuted for terrorism. The implications seen in Algerian
and Afghan cases did not bode well for the future. Legal opposition to
the new law was very limited. Courts had extremely limited powers to strike
down decisions made by the executive. A challenge under judicial review
was itself very limited. In cases involving national security there will
be a new special immigration appeal body which would be where future challenges
would be heard. Finally, Mr Blake warned that the new Act was in danger
of shortcutting the country's obligations under existing international
The playwright Harold Pinter pointed to the prejudiced political calculations
behind the Act and the list of proscribed groups. He understood that nowhere
was the KLA on the list and suspected that the Nicaraguan Contras would
not have been there either. Such groups were both subsidised by the US
and seen as "our freedom fighters". He was pleased to be participating
in the event but found it depressing that the meeting was taking place
after the event. Likewise he found the vote in the Commons where 396 voted
in favour of the Act and only 17 against even more depressing. It meant
that only 17 people had really subjected the Bill to any detailed critical
The case of Turkey and the PKK was an eloquent example of where Britain
stood in relation to human rights across the world and American policy.
While Turkey had brutally suppressed the Kurdish people and sought to
humiliate them by the arrest of Ocalan, they had failed because of the
strength of the Kurdish resistance. Newspaper reports had repeatedly claimed
that Ocalan had killed 30, 000 people, when the real facts were ignored
which were that most of the deaths were victims of the Turkish military.
While this went on Britain was trading with Turkey and energetically supplying
the regime with weapons of torture, as had been documented by Amnesty
International. There was an obvious discrepancy between government policy
and the true facts.
Exposing the absurdity of the situation, Mr Pinter concluded by mentioning
the incident when his play "Mountain Language" was performed
by a Kurdish theatre group in Hackney. The community centre was raided
by the police because someone had reported that the Kurds were carrying
weapons, when in fact the play, which was about torture, called for imitation
weapons as stage props. The brutal way the Kurds were treated made the
Kurds feel that they were back in Turkey. He condemned the new Act as
dangerous and pernicious. British law was now quite acceptable to Turkey.
Lord Rea, who participated in the House of Lords debate on the introduction
of the proscription order, gave an account of the proceedings. He was
concerned that the government spokesman Lord Bassam was unable to give
a convincing reason as to why this law was being introduced at this particular
time. He had simply mentioned the need for Britain to support other members
of the international community in the global fight against terrorism.
When the question was asked why these groups had been proscribed, the
answer was given that the Home Office had access to additional intelligence
which could not be disclosed even when the groups were appealing for deproscription.
It will not be available to their barristers either. Only the commission
charged with reviewing appeals will be allowed to see it. In effect, Lord
Rea said, no-one could know exactly how the Home Office had calculated
its decision and proscribed groups will not know the charges laid against
Lord Rea felt it was curious that the PKK was being banned over two years
after it had declared a cessation of armed activities and had been pursuing
peace. Shirley Williams had questioned the government about this, asking
how long a period of non-violence was required before the government would
be able to lift the proscription.
Lawyer Louise Christian, involved in asylum work since 1988, related the
Act to the current attacks on asylum seekers. The Home Office was sending
out refusal letters to Kurds and others on the grounds that they were
not active members of banned parties; they were now being criminalised
because they were. The Terrorism Act meant that the UK was repeating the
process of persecution that asylum seekers had endured in their home countries.
It should also be seen as part of the attack on the principles of the
1951 Geneva Convention.
Ms Christian said that she had long taken a sceptical attitude towards
the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act and found her views confirmed
by the new Terrorism Act. She was not optimistic that any challenge to
the law could be left to legal action alone as judicial review procedure
was very limited. The Act was a political issue and demanded a wider campaign.
It should be challenged by direct action, she said, giving notice of a
protest that was being organised in May. So far the new law had had little
media coverage, it had been brought in with force in an undemocratic way.
Last year no-one knew who the real targets were; the press reported on
animal rights and green activists, but did not consider refugee communities.
She said that countries like Turkey and India had been putting pressure
on Britain to act against groups like Kashmiris and Kurds.
She went on to condemn the Home Secretary's proposals for revising
asylum policy, especially the idea of setting up detention centres on
neighbouring countries as an alternative to the present system. This was
an alarming development and presented a major assault on the Geneva Convention.
She was ashamed to be associated with a country that was advocating such
Desmond Fernandes, a lecturer from De Montfort University who had written
about state security matters and human rights, spoke of the two decade
long history of criminalising the Kurdish community by the British police
and security services. The Terrorism Act was nothing new for the Kurds,
but was more an extension of legislation and actions already taken against
them. He feared however that the process would intensify. He set the issue
in a far wider context of international alliances. Britain was a NATO
ally of Turkey and was pursuing strategic aims against the Kurds and the
Turkish left. He alleged that Britain had assisted in the funding and
training of Turkish death squads used against political activists and
referred to the way HADEP members were habitually refused visas to enter
the country. All this was part of the same suppression of dissent. The
criminalisation made it easier for the government to repudiate the Kurdish
cause and allowed deportations of Kurdish asylum seekers to Turkey. He
described the interrogations of visitors at the ports as evidence of the
restrictions being put in place on the freedom of movement between European
member states. The proscription of the PKK had turned millions of Kurds
resident in Europe into terrorist suspects.
He gave several examples of how security services had already been targeting
the Kurdish community and how MI5 had been monitoring human rights activists
dealing with Turkey. Kurds had been detained under the PTA in 1995. Incidents
included phone-tapping, police targeting Kurdish cultural and community
events, police warning Kurdish shopkeepers not to sell Kurdish newspapers,
individuals being offered bribes to become police informants and even
the offer of refugee status for co-operation. All this has occurred before
the PKK ban and he warned that this was now likely to intensify. He warned
everyone that under the new Act even wearing Kurdish dress could be interpreted
as supporting terrorism because the Act refers to items of clothing that
The meeting concluded with a determination to support the campaigns and
initiatives that were being launched to get the Terrorism Act 2000 repealed
and to end the policy of proscribing political groups. One action would
be to draw up a public appeal against the legislation to be signed by
prominent personalities and lawyers.
Report: David Morgan, 24 April 2001.
For information call Peace in Kurdistan Campaign on 020 7586 5892 or 020