In Kafka’s The Trial (buy Amazon), published in 1925 Joseph K, a bank clerk, is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified people for an unspecified crime. Although the novel was never finished (and Kafka actually wished it destroyed) in what exists K spends his time trying to navigate a legal system which is at once ubiquitous, immensely powerful and totally lacking in transparency.
This novel comes to mind whenever I think about control orders, which were introduced by the British Government in the Prevention of Terrorism act in 2005 in response to the House of Lord’s ruling against indefinite detention without charge or trial for foreign nationals contained in the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001.
Control orders enable the Home Secretary to impose an unlimited range of restrictions on any person he or she suspects of involvement in terrorism. Among the restrictions that can be imposed are curfews of up to 16 hours enforced by an electronic tag, restrictions on the use of mobile phones and the internet, vetting of all visitors and meetings and restrictions on an individual’s movements. The Home Secretary also has the power to add new restrictions or obligations as he sees fit. Based on suspicion and secret intelligence, those subject to an order do not know the accusation or case against them and are powerless to dispute it or show their innocence.
Legislation which severely curtails personal liberty in this way, which can be enacted on the basis of vague criteria, and which has inadequate oversight is more than just concerning. The legality of control orders is currently being tested in the High Court following a critical House of Lord’s judgment in which Lord Hope said:
…a denunciation on grounds that are not disclosed is the stuff of nightmares. The rule of law in a democratic society does not tolerate such behaviour. The fundamental principle is that everyone is entitled to the disclosure of sufficient material to enable him to answer effectively the case that is made against him.
The Liberty 75 conference was attended recently myself and, more notably, Mahmoud Abu Rideh who has been subject to a control order for the past four years. Prior to this he was interned for three and and a half years without trial. Mr Abu Rideh must comply with a regime of telephone reporting three times every 24 hours; daily reporting in person to a police station; a 12-hour daily curfew and meetings outside the house and visits to anyone in the house prohibited except for persons cleared by the Home Office.
Mr Abu Rideh’s mental health appears to be severely compromised by his situation and he has made several suicide attempts and at one point was on hunger strike. And control order do not only affect the person to whom they are subject as their families suffer alongside their subject, as this article explains.
The civil liberty pressure group Liberty are campaigning against control orders and their director, Shami Chakrabarti has said:
As stupid as they are cruel, control orders are the worst hangover from Britain’s War on Terror. No real terrorist is ever going to comply with house arrest and a large number of suspects have disappeared. But an innocent person can be subject to indefinite and severe punishment without ever having been charged or brought to trial.
I agree; the UK Government should show its hand and prosecute any persons who it is currently subjecting to a control order as anything else is cruel and degrading. I am not aware of any representation having been made on behalf of doctors on this issue but there is a policy (broken link) adopted in 2003 by the World Medical Association that suggests we should be heard. It states that there is an:
..ethical obligation on physicians to report or denounce acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of which they are aware.
Addendum 9 September 2009 Most control orders likely to be revoked after terror suspect freed