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Secret courts bill hides government cover-ups

Liberties and freedoms enshrined in Magna Carta more than 800 years ago are under threat from the British government’s plans to deliver a bill that undermines the principle of open justice. This piece will look at the context in which the Justice and Security Bill, or ‘secret courts bill’ as it is nicknamed, is being pushed through and the powerful resistance to the legislation.

The bill is passing through the House of Lords while the country still reels from the most recent Hillsborough inquiry, which exposed a wide-scale cover up involving the police, politicians, and members of the emergency services. It took more than two decades for the truth to surface after the deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans at the stadium in Sheffield, and during that period ordinary people and their communities were demonised by those placed in a position of trust. The toxic legacy of Hillsborough should be followed by more transparency, not more secrecy. Yet the Justice and Security Bill has the potential to make it far easier for such cover-ups to take place.

Furthermore, the bill is being proposed at a time when former ministers from the Blair government including Jack Straw as well as senior establishment figures in the Secret Intelligence Services and Whitehall face the unprecedented prospect of being questioned by Scotland Yard detectives investigating claims of British collusion in the US rendition and torture programme. Crucial evidence of the UK’s role in at least two US-led renditions is detailed in a number of documents held by the Libyan security services, which came to light subsequent to the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

Britain’s role in the rendition of Libyan rebel leader Abdul Hakim Belhadj is pointed to in a letter from Sir Mark Allen, former director of counter-terrorism at MI6, to Moussa Koussa, Head of the Libyan intelligence agency at the time. Dated March 18 2004, Sir Mark writes about how grateful he is to Koussa for helping to smooth the way for Tony Blair’s latest visit to Colonel Gaddafi. He adds: “Most importantly, I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [aka Abdul Hakim Belhadj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad. I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week.”

It also emerged another rebel leader Sami Al-Saadi was detained whilst flying from his home in Hong Kong to the UK with his wife and four children – the youngest a girl aged six. The family were forced onboard an aircraft bound to Libya two days after Blair’s famous visit. The 45-year-old former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander, who was committed to over-throwing Gaddafi, believes documents discovered after the tyrant’s death show British personnel were instrumental in his detention and rendition.

Both he and Belhadj spent more than six years in custody where they say they were subject to torture. Legal papers were served in April on the former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw by Belhaj’s lawyers Leigh Day & Co and also lodged at the High Court. The documents clearly accuse Straw, Allen, MI6, MI5, the Foreign Office and Home Office of being liable for the false imprisonment as well as “complicity in torture and/or inhuman and degrading treatment; conspiracy to injure; conspiracy to use unlawful means; misfeasance in public office and/or negligence” suffered by the Belhadj and al Saadi families.

The prosecution may fail. The accusations may turn out to have no foundation at all. But stand or fall the case must be held in an open court so that justice is seen to be done. Under the current judicial system the proceedings would be open to journalists and members of the public. However, should the Justice and Security Bill be passed through Parliament this year in its present form then it is almost certain that both the press and the public will be denied access to the trial. Human rights lawyer Saghir Hussein said of this prospect: “What this means is that everyone outside of the court proceedings will not know who has been charged or the detail of what they have been charged with. Even the defendants may not be allowed in to the proceedings and may never find out why the charges have been brought, why they have been charged and what is the evidence against them. In other words they lose the right to defence. Nor will those seeking justice be allowed in to the court to see what is happening to their alleged tormentors”. He added, “It has not been lost on anyone that the drive for this new legislation emerged around the same time some very powerful people in very powerful places realised they could be forced to give evidence in an open court…”

The resistance

Last week, the London-based NGO Cageprisoners launched a campaign from the House of Commons, No More Secrets, to kill the proposed legislation. Respect MP George Galloway opened the press conference by talking about the need for transparency following the Hillsborough inquiry, saying: “When I learned that the police had systematically falsified the truth in literally 168 statements including allegedly at a high level, and the fact that this was all covered up for 23 years and would have remained a secret if it were not for the campaigning zeal, fortitude and courage of the families of the 96 football fans, then it struck me this is what secret courts would be like. One would never know the truth but it would be legal this time to cover those truths up.” Following on from Galloway, Natalie Bennett, the new leader of the Green Party, said: “Closed justice, not open to the scrutiny of the media or the public, is no justice at all and these closed courts further undermine an absolutely critical principal of the British legal system that everyone is equal before the law; because what it is doing is putting the government above the law.” Moazzam Begg, a director of Cageprisoners and former Guantanamo detainee, concluded the press conference by arguing that the introduction of secret courts would destroy the reputation of British justice, which has been respected and exported around the world.

It can take years for a campaign to attract enough pressure to force the hand of authority, as witnessed over Hillsborough; but the momentum against Clarke’s Justice and Security Bill has already built up a full head of steam. Opponents are diverse and drawn from all political parties, human rights groups and the legal profession. Some of the most eminent names in human rights circlesexpressed concern about the legislation in The Guardian earlier this year. Former shadow home secretary David Davis is vehemently against the bill, as is the controversial Labour MP Paul Flynn who has added his full weight to the No More Secrets campaign. One of the most powerful opponents is Lord MacDonald, the former director of public prosecutions, who has made clear his view that the bill would invite ministers to seek to hide “awkward or embarrassing” actions under the guise of protecting national security. On the same day as the Cageprisoners campaign launch, the issue was being discussed at the Liberal Democrat conference. Jo Shaw, a former parliamentary candidate, tabled a motion in Brighton to withdraw from part of the bill. She said: “This motion is not saying that all the security services or government officials or police are bad or corrupt. But some may be. Some may make mistakes and wish to cover them up. Part two [of the bill] will allow a few bad apples to rot our judicial system from behind closed doors. In simple words, this is a bad bill.”

The Justice and Security Bill will undermine public faith in the judicial system, a system which, as Moazzam Begg pointed out, is admired and embraced around the world. If this bill becomes a reality we may never find out what is being done in our name, behind closed doors.

Yvonne Ridley is a patron of Cageprisoners. She produced and narrated the documentary ‘Lies, Spies & Libya’, directed by award-winning film-maker Hassan al Banna Ghani. For details of the documentary, to be shown as part of the nationwide No More Secrets tour, see the Cageprisoners website.