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Human Rights Court Savages UK Stop & Search Terror Powers

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Landmark decision clears the way for restoration of privacy, right to protest, photograph unhindered

Steve Watson
Tuesday, Jan 12, 2010

The use of “counter-terrorism” stop and search laws by the police in the UK has been ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights, a decision that paves the way for protesters, photographers and everyday citizens to fight back against such gross invasions of privacy.

Under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, police can stop and search anyone without reasonable suspicion.

The court in Strasbourg has referred to that power as not in “accordance with the law”, and a violation of article eight – the right to respect for private and family life.

Judges noted that there is no grounds for considering the powers “necessary”, and that they are only “expedient”, adding that there is a “clear risk of arbitrariness in granting such broad discretion” to a police officer.

They also stated that the searching clothing and belongings interferes with the right to privacy as it involves an element of humiliation and embarrassment.

  • A d v e r t i s e m e n t

The use of the powers and their authorisation is “neither sufficiently circumscribed, nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse”, according to the court.

The court also highlighted a lack of judicial oversight, stating “The absence of any obligation on the part of the officer to show a reasonable suspicion made it almost impossible to prove that the power had been improperly exercised”.

The full judgment is online here.

The freedom stripping powers, which were initially conceived only to be used in emergency situations, have come under intense scrutiny recently following the publication of multiple sets of figures highlighting huge increases in stops with a relatively miniscule success rate.

In May 2009, data released to the BBC revealed that the Metropolitan Police in London used section 44 of the Terrorism Act more than 170,000 times in 2008 to stop people in the capital. That figure equated to stopping and searching a member of the public every three minutes under terrorism laws.

The figures represented a more than 140% increase on 2007 numbers.

Of all the stops in 2008, only 65 led to arrests for terror offences, a success rate of just 0.035%. Furthermore, when you take into account how many of those arrests have translated into convictions, according to the Home Office, you come up with a round figure of 0.0%.

A separate Freedom of Information Act request in 2009 also revealed that the use of the stop and search power has increased exponentially by over ten times in less than ten years.

Furthermore, Ministry of Justice statistics, published in mid 2008, revealed that from 2006-2007 police used their powers to stop (but not search) nearly two million members of the public and demand they account for their behavior or actions, a rise of one third from the previous year.

This meant that in just one year around 3.5% of the entire British population was stopped in the street by the police under suspicion of terror related offences.

While not resulting in the prevention of any terrorism, the section 44 powers have been most notably used against the 82-year-old Walter Wolfgang for heckling Jack Straw at the Labour Conference; Sally Cameron for walking on a cycle-path in Dundee; the 80-year-old John Catt for being caught on CCTV passing a demonstration in Brighton; the 11-year-old Isabelle Ellis-Cockcroft for accompanying her parents to an anti-nuclear protest; and a cricketer on his way to a match over his possession of a bat.

More recently, Scotland Yard admitted that its officers have been photographing children who are stopped and searched, even after they have been found to be innocent, and keeping the pictures on a database for “intelligence-gathering purposes”.

In the past we have reported on instances where police have admitted stop and search records are permanently retained.

The Home Office guide to stop and search states that “if they don’t find anything, your details will be recorded for monitoring purposes, and you’ll be allowed to go.”

The government has continued to push for greater stop and search powers for police.

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act bestows exceptional powers on the police to stop and search at random, once a particular geographical area has been designated by a chief officer as one that might be targeted by terrorists and authorised as such by the Home Secretary. The government has since extended this power to stop and search WITHOUT REASONABLE SUSPICION to include “troubled areas”, which since 2001 has included the whole of Greater London.

As of February 17 2009, Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act also prohibits photographing police and permits the arrest of anyone found “eliciting, publishing or communicating information” relating to members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers, which is “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.

Essentially, under anti-terror laws, anyone caught photographing police could face a fine or a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

As we have recently reported, this section of the act is being used primarily to target journalists covering protests, who say they are being targeted by police surveillance officers more so than the actual protesters. The law has also been used against tourists snapping pictures of landmarks and members of the public documenting police misconduct.

A recent report by the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights confirmed that journalists and protesters were the primary targets of increased police misuse of anti-terror laws.

This week’s ruling from the Human Rights Court refers to the case of Kevin Gillan and Pennie Quinton who were detained for attending a protest outside Europe’s biggest arms fair in London in September 2003.

Having finally achieved justice after more than six years of pursuing the matter, the pair were awarded €33,850 (£30,400) in costs and expenses. Gillan and Quinton, who like many others could have just walked away, should be commended as heroes for their efforts to defend freedom in the UK.

Anti-terror laws are intended for use on the general public, they always have been, and now we are seeing the rotten fruits of continued blind acceptance contaminate every section of society in this country.

Gillan and Quinton have paved the way for others who have been the victims of the misuse of these draconian terrorism laws to fight back and help push for a complete rejection of such abuses of power.

This article was posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 12:16 pm

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