the Disillusioned kid: Terrorism Billing
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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Terrorism Billing

There is atradition in this country that after major terrorist incidents the government passes a piece of anti-terrorist legislation which will we are told ensure that such attrocities do not happen again. Of course, they do and we then continue this game passing a new piece of legislation which will bide us over until the next attack. Each iteration of this process involves the loss of hard-fought for civil liberties. It was inevitable after the July 7 and 21 attacks (if the latter merits such a label) that we would see the latest installment in this game and the government have now released a draft of the latest piece of legislation imaginatively called the Terrorism Bill (pdf, via).

As is so often the case with legal draftsmanship, the Bill is hardly a gripping read. Nevertheless it does contain a number of provisions which merit close attention. As yet I've only skimmed it, but this sample seems particularly noteworthy (and falls at the very start of the act making it easy to find even for the lazy amongst us):
(1) A person commits an offence if
(a) he publishes a statement or causes another to publish a statement on his behalf;
(b) the statement glorifies, exalts or celebrates the commission, preparation or instigation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of acts of terrorism; and
(c) the circumstances and manner of the statement's publication (taken together with its contents) are such that it would be reasonable for members of the public to whom it is published to assume that the statement expresses the views of that person or has his endorsement.
Got that? I can't find a definition of terrorism in the act, so presumably the new Bill will use the one set out in the Terrorism Act 2000. In case any of you have forgotten that reads thus:
1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-
(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.
(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-
(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.
(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.
A pretty wide defintion I'm sure you'll agree. Much wider, I suspect, than most people's personal definitions. Many critics have suggested that this definition would seem to encompass anti-GM activists tearing up crops. The action in which they engage probably constitutes "serious damage to property," the crops being the property of the farmer or perhaps the biotech company who created it and they clearly do it in order to "influence the government" and to advance a "political cause". If this is a correct reading of the TA2000 definition and the new Bill accepts this then are we to conclude that anybody "glorifies, exalts or celebrates the commission, preparation or instigation" of crop trashings could face prosecution under the new legislation?

To be sure, no anti-GM campaigners have been prosecuted under the TA2000 - yet. The role of "creep" within the law is hardly undheard of, however. Acts often get used in situations radically different from those for which they were intended. Witness the use of Asbos against suicidal depressives to prevent them trying to take their own lives. Indeed, section 44 of the TA2000 was used against anti-DSEi protesters in 2002 in order that the police could search people; a strange choice given that Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives them most of the same powers and would have rested on a much firmer legal base (i.e. nobody seriously believed that there was a terrorist threat to the arms fair, but the police could have argued that there was a risk of violence and the media and politicians would no doubt have believed them). Using the Act in this way seems to have been unusual and has attracted considerable flak when it has taken place, it does demonstrate, however, how legislation ostensibly limited in application to "terrorist" can be used against peaceful protesters.

Returning to the new Bill I doubt that the section sampled above will - at least in the short-term - be applied as widely as it could be given the government's definitions. Am I likely to be charged under the act for my support for militant protest or even in some case the use of political violence? Probably not. The reason why, apart from my irrelevance is that my skin happens to be the right colour. I'll put money on the fact that the fast majority, if not all, of those charged under the Act will be non-white, Asian, probably Muslim. This won't pass unoticed within Muslim communities and will only confirm the fears and concerns of many Muslims. Some may even be driven into the arms of extremists as a result. If, as seems horrifically possible, some of these new recruits decide to express their anger by blowing themselves up on the tube then you needn't worry, we'll just pass some more anti-terrorism legislation which will make everything better. You needn't worry yourselves.

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