On 19 January, I wrote in The Canary about how we should all be worried about a new proposed piece of legislation that home secretary Priti Patel wants to introduce. As I argued, this proposal should worry us all:
Not just because the UK already has an array of draconian terrorism laws but because of the implications for freedom of speech and what might be included.
Patel is looking at whether there is “a gap in the legislation” and is proposing creating an offence prohibiting possession of terrorist and extremist material. Currently, it is a crime to distribute terrorism information, but not simply to own it.
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But Patel has now gone further. And her terrorist legislation, which could be in place within weeks, is quite frankly terrifying.
Patel believes that the London Bridge attack in November 2019 “confronted us with some hard truths about how we deal with terrorist offenders”. And her response is draconian, to say the least.
One of her proposals is to introduce a mandatory minimum sentence of 14 years for anyone convicted of offences such as preparing for acts of terrorism. And Patel also wants to abolish automatic early release dates for people convicted of such offences.
In other words, anyone convicted of such an offence is likely to spend 14 years locked up. Currently, the sentencing guidelines for the preparation of terrorist acts range from 3 years to life imprisonment. This is due to the range of grey areas with such offences. For example, someone playing a leading role in a plan that is likely to have caused multiple deaths faces a sentence of 35 years. Whereas someone “engaged in very limited preparation for terrorist activity” that’s unlikely to cause casualties faces a sentence between three and six years.
And this is exactly why there are sentencing guidelines for offences and why judges exercise discretion and nuance in their sentencing. This can clearly be seen in the case of Aiden James. James was the first person successfully prosecuted for fighting against Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) in northern Syria aka Rojava. Although he was acquitted of charges related to the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units), he was convicted of attending a training camp in Iraq where the PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party) were present. James was sentenced to 12 months for this offence with the judge accepting that the Kurdish forces were UK allies against Daesh and that it was “not an ordinary case”.
Under Patel’s new law, the judge wouldn’t have this discretion. James would be serving 14 years.
It gets worse
But this legislation is 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.
And on 10 January, environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) hit the headlines after its inclusion in a counter-terror policing document for safeguarding young and vulnerable people.
Although Patel accepted XR wasn’t a terrorist group, she defended its inclusion, stating it was “based in terms of risk to the public, security risks, security threats”. But while the liberal establishment is shocked and ‘scared’ by her defence, anyone with even a passing knowledge of protest policing will tell you this isn’t anything new.
Meanwhile, Patel is proposing an extra £90m a year for counter-terror policing. But it’s unclear exactly why this money is needed. Coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) Kevin Blowe pointed out to The Canary:
At the same time, the enormous pressure counter-terrorism policing keeps insisting it is under is significantly undermined by growing evidence of the targeting of non-violent campaigners and the drafting of lists of “risk groups” that, as we have seen in the last week, have no association with terrorism and may no longer even exist.
And, as Blowe commented, the state has followed the same flawed plan for the last 20 years:
Since 2000 there have been eight separate pieces of terrorism-specific legislation that have created more offences and deeply entrenched the obligation on the public sector to report on “extremist radicalisation”. It is time we recognised that government ministers still talking about the same persistent threat, twenty years on, is an admission that none of this is working and it is time for a fundamental rethink.
Kurdish freedom movement
As I argued with Patel’s other terrorism proposal, the immediate threat of this legislation won’t be felt by groups such as XR. But it will potentially have a devastating impact on some communities who already face repression under existing laws. Nik Matheou, a solidarity organiser with the Kurdish freedom movement in the UK, told The Canary that while this new legislation is “particularly scary”, it’s also “quite predictable”, and that “we shouldn’t be surprised”. Matheou continued:
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. And the Kurdish freedom movement not least. It’s been on the list [of proscribed organisations] since the first one was drawn up in 2000 with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which has been recently delisted in Belgium. And the result of this is that the whole Kurdish community in the UK has been criminalised. Leading on from that, people who have risked their lives, or are alleged to have risked their lives, fighting the so-called Islamic state for everyone in these countries have been targeted.
But it’s not just people like James and other alleged fighters against Daesh who are at risk. Matheou also outlined the current situation for anyone involved in solidarity work with these communities:
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. And this encompasses everything from being able to visit certain places, from being able to say certain things, from being able to do the necessary advocacy work that has always held the state to account when it has made really profound mistakes.
And Matheou pointed out that we don’t have to think back too far to remember:
cases of Irish people who were totally spuriously imprisoned for decades at a time to see that even in the old situation the laws were being misapplied and were creating really profound injustices. And I don’t think we have to have too much imagination to see how this new set of laws, giving the police and the state such a wide range of powers, creates the potential for even more injustices of this kind.
We need to stand together
Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen how terrorist legislation is used and abused against communities and protest groups. Meanwhile, the state continues to conflate terrorism and extremism, making both terms meaningless in the process.
We need to stand together to stop further repression. We need to support Kurdish communities and the Kurdish freedom movement against repression. We need to fight against the Islamophobia inherent in Prevent and many counter-terror strategies. And everyone needs to get involved in Netpol’s campaign to stop labelling campaigners as extremists.
There’s going to be so much we all need to fight under a Boris Johnson majority government. But we need to make sure we fight these threats to our civil liberties, because all our freedoms depend on it.
Featured image via YouTube – The Telegraph
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