in Human rights / Surveillance state

Control orders

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

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  1. This is a subject that I have researched exensively and I have to say I agree with you. I think there need to be trials, and I think that the trials have to be fairn and independently overseen, although I would stop short of saying that they need to be public.

    I also wonder what the sense is of tagging someone who is viewed to be a potential suicide bomber. Presumably such a person would be rather undaunted by the fact that the police are alerted to him moving outside of his permitted area – knowing that they will be dead before they are caught.

    Finally, and perhaps more controversially, I think there is a real need to take some tough decisions in order to keep the public safe and to ensure that individuals who are found – by a tribunal – to be a threat are dealt with. My personal view is that in circumstances where individuals are found to be a genuine threat, they should be returned to their own country irrespective of the decision in Soering.

    Specifically, I believe that if a foreign national is minded to kill, they have no right to be afforded the luxury of staying in this country. I believe that they should be returned home, thereby allowing the masses here in the UK a better chance to exercise their right to live peacefully.

    Nice post FP :>

  2. p.s I tried to read The Trial about a month ago and found it absolutely dreadful. It was like wading through treacle.

  3. In response to this observation by Daisy:
    ‘Specifically, I believe that if a foreign national is minded to kill, they have no right to be afforded the luxury of staying in this country. I believe that they should be returned home, thereby allowing the masses here in the UK a better chance to exercise their right to live peacefully.’

    Generally, they would be. The problem is that we, as a nation, also take a dim view of people being killed or tortured by their own countries. Where there are realistic concerns that this is exactly what will happen to any returned terrorists (and in many countries that is a likely outcome) we don’t return them.

    Some countries have given the UK a ‘memorandum of understanding’ that they will not torture returned individuals. There is a significant debate about what standing these have and whether they are a sufficient safeguard. Recent case law from the Court of Appeal decided they are not but a further appeal seems likely.

    In the meantime, the UK government feels it has to do something with these individuals. It is an irony that it is respect for human rights that leads to a state of affairs where control orders, which subject an individual to extraordinary limits on their personal rights, are brought in.

    Sometimes there aren’t easy answers, just least bad options. One of the key reforms that the government could bring in is to make more use of covert phone tap evidence in court. It prefers not to but this could sometimes allow prosecution where, otherwise, there is not sufficient evidence.

    Incidentally, I agree that The Trial is close on unreadable.

  4. Sorry just noted your reference to the Soering case – so you’re probably well aware of this.


  5. Hi Hal,

    Thank-you for your responses to my messages. Yes, I know Soering, and it’s a case that I use almost daily at work.

    I’m a barrister who specialises in human rights, and as I guess you can tell, this is a subject close to my heart. I want to protect the civil liberties of law abiding people in this country, and I believe that in order to do that we need to look at the bigger picture. This may sometimes mean forfeiting the rights of the few to benifit the many.

    I don’t see another way….

    (and thank-you for your views on The Trial. :> )