Priti Patel’s proposed new terrorism offence was worrying. Her new plans are frankly terrifying.

Priti Patel
Emily Apple

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.

But Patel has now gone further. And her terrorist legislation, which could be in place within weeks, is quite frankly terrifying.

New legislation

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.

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.

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.

Criminalising solidarity

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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  • Show Comments
    1. I believe that fiasco in November to have been a false flag, and possibly it’s being used as an excuse for authoritarian measures in preparation for when the public respond to some of the unpleasant and cruel measures this government intends to introduce, all in pursuit of profits for the money-grubbers who back them. I’m convinced they stole the election from Corbyn and no doubt they’re much more aware than we are at dissatisfaction over the result, which will exacerbate the unrest coming over future policies.

      If that’s the case then this government is already scared of us. They’re hoping to frighten us but they know there are always activists who won’t back down. Even Hitler and Stalin had fierce opponents.

      1. Setting aside the matters you raise, there is independent reason to believe Johnson’s kakistocracy headed toward collapse. Definitely a disaster for its members but in the process likely to be damaging for ordinary people and with lasting ill-effect upon civil society.

        Johnson’s overbearing arrogance coupled with profound ignorance of matters other than writing newspaper opinion pieces has set free a flock of ugly fowl destined to come home to roost in messy manner. Johnson has promised much. He has portrayed himself as decisive and fools have been deluded by Johnson’s ersatz charisma (this even more distasteful than Blair’s) into believing him a man of intellectual weight, integrity, and having the best interests of the nation (at least England) at heart.

        Johnson’s promises have no secure foundation because they are predicated upon how contingent events will turn out. His position is worsened by the hectic time scale he has committed the UK for detaching from the EU and to hitching the UK’s wagon at the back of a train of USA carriages destined to be derailed because US infrastructure, global financial influence, military hegemony, political process, and internal civility are on the brink of collapse.

        Additionally, anyone taking note of global economic matters will be aware of markets in perilous state and nations like China and Russia furiously stocking up physical gold as hedge against an almost certain replay, this time far worse, of the 2008/9 financial crash. If, as some astute people posit likely, the crash occurs in 2020/21 Johnson will be caught with his pants down as he changes from a pair emblazoned with the EU logo to one sporting a set of stars and stripes; there could be no worse time for managing a state in the throws of constitutional uncertainty and internal apprehension.

        Even lacking financial crisis, Johnson’s position is perilous. The fowl alluded to above intent upon returning to their roost will be dropping in apace. They represent unresolved matters great and small. These either unintended consequences of Johnson’s crusade for personal glory (in the eyes of his neo-liberal masters) or foreseeable yet ill-worked-out. Already, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland governments/assemblies are cutting up rough and will at least add confusion to the mix. Business, much already opposed to leaving customs union with the EU, shall begin complaining loudly about this and that. Employees of businesses already foretold by Johnson’s government as suffering ill-consequences from Brexit shall add their voices, perhaps in French-style rioting, to the clamour. Ordinary people will begin complaining about the already anticipated difficulties in food supplies, pharmaceuticals, and other things of importance to them. Johnson’s shallow optimism and bravado just won’t wash any more.

        Not all members of Johnson’s cabinet are irredeemably vile, self-serving, avaricious, and blinkered. Perhaps, the better among them already discern the UK and its ‘establishment’ to be on a route to perdition, this increasingly unavoidable as time passes. It is to be hoped they will ditch their leader and introduce among their number some of the ousted Tories who grasp noblesse oblige. They must always be aware that nearly half the adult population is opposed to or unenthusiastic about Brexit. They ought also realise that if, as remains on the cards, Johnson steers toward no-deal Brexit there is almost inevitability of merde hitting the fan and perhaps their own blood too.

        Johnson should be relegated to his bunker under Whitehall and given plenty of maps and toy soldiers to play with; he could be accompanied by fellow Walter Mitty figure ‘Gav the Chav’ Williamson. Meanwhile, leaders of the coup against Johnson must set Brexit on a less hasty, more stable, and politically survivable path. A sensible option would be to seek interim Brexit along the lines of arrangements in Norway and Switzerland. After a breather of years, at least to the next general election, the electorate could be polled on whether further detachment from the EU is desirable. The possibility of internal EU reform, backed by other prominent member states, ought not be discounted.

        The gift to the people of reasonable certainties and prospect of internal harmony rests solely in the hands of the Conservative Party. Until the next election Labour can do little more than criticise and perhaps turn a blind eye to agitators in its ranks intent upon emulating the revolutionary habits of the French.

        —–

        Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

    2. And what about the victims of terrorism? If Usman Khan hadn’t been let out early, two young people would still be alive. You are more concerned with the welfare of people like Usman Khan, than with the likes of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, and all the other scores of victims of recent Muslim terrorist attacks in the UK. You might not be so soft on terrorists if you knew any of the victims.

      1. Your concern over how the perpetrator was enabled through prison release to kill two people is shared by many, I being among them.

        Nevertheless, it ought not be assumed the idea of flexible release dates is inherently flawed. We are yet to know how and what decisions, and by whom, were taken over Khan’s fate. We don’t know whether avoidable errors in decision taking were made rather than the procedures themselves being unfit for purpose.

        What also is worrying is the seemingly knee-jerk response by the Home Secretary in order to establish credentials as ‘tough on crime’.

        There’s little point in having judicial discretion and post-sentence review processes when the upright leaders of our country are so self-evidently sagacious as to know beyond doubt that ‘one size fits all’ in matters penological.

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