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Government move is the latest in a series of assaults on civil liberties

Andy McSmith / London Independent | May 4 2006

Freedom of speech

Critics say that ministers, in their determination to tackle crime, particularly terrorism, have forgotten that they should also be protecting free speech. The Terrorism Act, which came into force last month, makes "glorification" of terrorism an offence. Though aimed at Islamic extremists, it could apply to dissidents who want to see dictators such as Robert Mugabe overthrown. And it took a mass campaign led by the writers' rights group English Pen, and the comedian Rowan Atkinson - as well as a Commons rebellion - to block a new law that would have made it illegal to make remarks that might incite religious hatred.


Being allowed to protest peacefully is another ancient right. Last year's Serious Organised Crime Act banned unauthorised demonstrations. One intention was to ban loud protests near Parliament. The first person charged under the measure was Milan Rai, who stood in Whitehall reading out names of soldiers killed in Iraq. Maya Evans, who was arrested with Mr Rai, was the first person convicted under the Act.

The intended target of the Act was Brian Haw, who has held an anti-war protest outside Parliament for the past five years. Last July, Mr Haw, 56, won a legal battle to continue his vigil because of a drafting error in the new law. The Government is urging the Court of Appeal to overturn that decision.

Habeas corpus

For hundreds of years, it was a principle that no one could be held in prison without being told what they are accused of, until this government decided indefinite detention without charge was the only way they could deal with some foreign terrorist suspects.

After judges ruled it contravened international law, control orders for suspected terrorists who have not been charged were brought in. A judge remarked last month that there is only a "thin veneer of legality" covering those orders. Critics call it a form of house arrest. Last month's Terrorism Act also doubled the length of time police can hold a terrorist suspect without charge, to 28 days. If Tony Blair had had his way, it would have been 90 days.

Guilty until proved innocent

The Government has also nibbled away at the ancient, basic rule that everyone is innocent until proved guilty. It brought in curfews that allowed police to stop and escort home any child under 16 who is found outside after 9pm. Last July, a judge ruled in favour of a 15-year-old who claimed his rights had been breached, saying "all of us have the right to walk the streets without interference from the police." The new Police and Justice Bill will allow police to fit electronic tags on suspects for an unlimited period without reference to a judge.
Convicted without trial

Tony Blair is very proud of the effect Asbos have had in discouraging petty hooligans. About 2,000 have been issued, mostly to children, who can be as young as 10. They are intended to act as a warning to keep children out of court but more than 40 per cent of Asbos are breached and more than half of those who breach Asbos end up in custody, provoking fears that the orders are becoming a way of bypassing the normal process of law.

Trial by jury

It is an 800-year-old tradition, enshrined in the Magna Carta, that trials involving serious crimes are heard in front of a jury - until this government decided that trials likely to last more than three months could be heard by a judge aided by expert assessors. That is expected to apply in up to 20 cases a year. Critics called the idea the "thin end of the wedge"' but the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, said: "It's the thinnest end of the wedge there can conceivably be."


People who are not committing crime generally do not want the Government keeping watch on them. Tony Blair wants everyone to be compelled to have an ID card, and have their details recorded on a national register. Both opposition parties say ID cards will be expensive and will not cut crime. Police have also been storing up DNA records on people who have not been convicted of any offence.


Campaigners suspect British airports have been used by the CIA to transport terrorist suspects for interrogation in countries that use torture. It is thought that there may have been 200 of these flights through British airfields since 2001. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, does not seem to be going out of his way to check this allegation.

Blair's lucky red charm offensive

During a rowdy question time in the Commons, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, seemed anxious to hide a red thread around his wrist which he picked up during a visit to a Hindu temple in Neasden last week. It is, apparently, a sacred Hindu thread which symbolises strength. Whether he remembered he was wearing a lucky charm is not clear. If so, he might have considered passing it to the beleaguered Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, who went bare-wristed.

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