While we’re distracted by coronavirus, Priti Patel quietly introduces new draconian powers

Priti Patel on Sky News
Eliza Egret

Disclaimer: the author is a signatory to the statement quoted in this piece

While we’re all focussed on dealing the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, Priti Patel is quietly introducing a raft of new draconian terrorism powers. But lawyers, academics, journalists, researchers, and activists are taking action to ensure these new powers don’t become law without a fight. In a joint statement, they argue that the government’s new counter-terrorism and sentencing bill “must be opposed by everyone”.

The statement, released by Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC), argues that “the greatest risk is for innocent individuals to be caught up and their lives seriously torn apart by the powers in the bill”.

This is the eighth counter-terrorism bill since the year 2000

The bill was proposed in May at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when parliament wasn’t fully functioning and when, unsurprisingly, the majority of the public was preoccupied with other issues. It passed its second reading in the House of Commons in June.

The CAMPACC statement explains that:

This is the eighth Counter-Terrorism Bill following the founding Terrorism Bill 2000 which made emergency powers permanent and became the basis of subsequent bills which were put in after significant terror attacks.

What counts as terrorism and extremism?

CAMPACC argues that:

as with previous counter-terrorism measures, individuals suspected of non-violent extremism, who have committed no crime, could fall in the net without any recourse to a fair trial.

And in order for the state to secure more severe prison sentences, it’s possible that ordinary crimes could be deemed ‘terrorist’ crimes. Indeed, the government states that the bill will enable “the courts to find any offence with a maximum penalty of more than two years to have a terrorist connection”.

Back in January, The Canary’s Emily Apple wrote that Patel’s new proposals were:

truly terrifying due to the context of how terrorism and extremism are defined and used by the state – especially given that while terrorism is defined in law, extremism doesn’t have a legal definition. And we are, after all, living in a time where protest policing comes under the umbrella of counter-terrorism.

On 17 January, the Guardian published a counter-terrorism document that listed organisations such as Greenpeace, Campaign Against Arms Trade, and Animal Aid as extremist threats.

Draconian measures

The statement highlights some of the new draconian measures in the bill:

We, together with a coalition of other organisations, fought the control orders, [which included] a system of indefinite house arrests introduced by the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2005, over four years. The Act was repealed and replaced by the Terrorism Prevention and Investigative Measures (TPIMS) in 2011.

Although repressive in every way, TPIMs had a term limit of two years. This act removes the two year limit and hence make TPIMs with annual renewal indefinite.

Human rights campaigners argue that by doing this, the new bill brings back control orders in all but name. TPIMS are measures imposed by the home secretary. But the wording of when TPIMS can be used is changing in the new bill. Previously TPIMs could be imposed when there was a “balance of probabilities” that a person is involved in “terrorism-related activity”. This is now being altered to the far more subjective ‘reasonable grounds for suspecting‘.

This means that people can be put under indefinite house arrest before even going on trial. And it also means that those under suspicion can be indefinitely relocated to other places in the UK, ripping up families and communities. There are already 14 TPIMs that the government can impose on someone, including tagging them, banning them from associating with certain people, taking away their passport, and limiting access to their own bank account. However, at present, these measures all have a two-year limit.

Targeting marginalised communities

Although they might be aware of the new bill, the average white, middle-class Guardian reader is pretty unlikely to have their life turned upside down by it. Rather, it’s BAME communities who will feel the effects the most. The CAMPACC signatories state that:

We are especially concerned in the way that the bill widens its application to common law offences where determinations will have to be made whether each case has a ‘terrorist connection’. Under this, whether a crime like stabbing is considered to be a ‘standard’ crime, a ‘gang-related’ crime or a ‘terror-related’ crime will leave it open to discriminatory decisions with the outcome likely to depend on whether the perpetrator is black or Muslim, respectively.

The bill also introduces the serious terrorism sentence, meaning that someone convicted would spend a minimum of 14 years in prison, with an extended licence period of to up to 25 years if certain conditions are met.

Longer sentences

This bill follows on from the 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act. Amongst other provisions, this Act widened the offence of “inviting support to a proscribed organisation” to:

cover expressions of support that are reckless as to whether they will encourage others to support the organisation.

The 2019 legislation also included a new offence of streaming or viewing material useful for terrorism online even if it’s not downloaded and outlawed travelling to ‘designated areas’.

The new bill extends the maximum prison sentence for the offence of supporting a proscribed organisation from ten years to 14 years. Other offences that will see the same increase in sentencing powers include:

  • Being a member of a proscribed organisation.
  • Attending a place used for terrorism training.
Targeting the Kurdish community

The CAMPACC statement argues that:

The bill would have a chilling effect on the Kurdish community who have a long history of resistance against the authoritarian Turkish state. Their organisation [the] PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) has been proscribed since 2001. The law outlaws political activity and organisation within the Kurdish community. The community members have never been involved in acts of terror in Britain.

The recent Belgium Court judgement that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation but a party in conflict is notable. It is about time PKK was de-proscribed. Its continued proscription has always given the Turkish state an excuse to ratchet up repression and deny Kurds of any of the political and human rights.

In reality, there are questions over what the bill will mean for Kurdish people and their supporters in their everyday lives. For example, will someone on a protest, holding a flag of PKK leader and political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan, face 14 years imprisonment for supporting a proscribed organisation? What will it mean for those of us who support one of the biggest women’s movements in the world? And will British citizens who fought with their Kurdish comrades against Daesh in Syria also face 14 years in prison? Where is the line drawn?

Nik Matheou, a solidarity organiser with the Kurdish freedom movement in the UK, previously told The Canary the prosed new legislation is “particularly scary” and that:

These laws have been accumulating since 2000 and removed more and more civil liberties each time. But up to this point, it’s been easier for a lot of people to be able to ignore some of these laws because of the way in which they’ve targeted particular communities associated with particular movements…But now we’re really at the point where anyone who associates themselves with these movements, anyone who does really important and necessary solidarity work for criminalised communities here is at risk themselves of being associated with the category terrorist and having all of their civil liberties taken away.

Fight for our communities

As the CAMPACC statement argues, other communities will also be targeted by this legislation:

The Tamil community will be similarly intimidated. It is a community recovering from a genocide and defeat and subjected to repression by the Sri Lankan state. The Basque, Somali Baloch and Palestinian community are in a similar situation with their main political organisations banned.

The government is slipping through this bill at exactly the same time as a worldwide pandemic. Patel and the others were perhaps hoping that we wouldn’t notice. Or that we were just too busy worrying about our families’ and communities’ health to care.

But this sinister bill criminalises the same communities that we have been looking out for, delivering medicines to, and organising mutual aid with.

‘The government’s counter-terrorism strategy has failed’

Moreover, as the CAMPACC statement points out, the government needs to take a hard look at its own incompetency:

The truth that the government has not confronted, is that, for two decades its counter-terrorism strategy has failed. We have seen sporadic terror attacks where critical intelligence has failed to pick them up. No level of repressive measures eroding civil liberties and the rule of law in the name of security has protected the public. The government has failed to recognise that its unjust wars and support for repressive regime has led to increased threat of terrorism.

But of course, the government is not going to admit that its wars for oil and control in the Middle East are anything but just.

The public is becoming more and more agitated by our government’s institutional racism and colonial policies, and we’re seeing mass movements on the streets. This new bill shows us what the government is really scared of: the people, rising up for real, radical change.

Featured image via Sky News/YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. Of course, don’t forget that according to the Israeli State, Palestinian and Terrorist are virtually synonymous. No reason, in the long run, this kind of legislation shouldn’t be used against supporters of the Palestinians. As terrorism and extremism become conflated the limits of acceptable debate can be narrowed ever further till before you know it Big Brother is in your living-room and inconvenient facts go down the memory hole. And when Latin American trade unionists get bumped off, is that terrorism? Or is it defence of the free market and democracy? And what about the goons who have done America’s very dirty work in Central America for decades. Are they terrorists? And when Jimmy Carter propped up Pol Pot, what was that ? In 1910, when he was Home Secretary, Churchill planned to sterilise 100,000 “mental degenerates” and to incarcerate tens of thousands more in State run camps to protect the “British race” from decline. He is Johnson’s hero. Don’t be surprised if people on the left are dubbed degenerates, or terrorists or extremists who must be locked away for the good of the country. Patel and Johnson are far-gone in their demented view of the superiority and virtue of their own kind. Reality does not impinge.

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