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Monday, 2 December, 2002, 16:04 GMT
UK's war on terror sparks human rights row
John Sweeney outside the Old Bailey
John Sweeney: Britain must protect its historic liberties
As the government pledges to protect the public from terror attacks, John Sweeney asks whether, in the name of security, the basic human rights of British al-Qaeda suspects are being violated.

Her Majesty's Prison, Belmarsh, is perhaps the bleakest building in the country - a maximum security jail the phrase "soul-destroying", you could say, was invented for.

Since 1215 AD, when Bad King John was forced to sit down with the barons and write down a bill of rights, the Magna Carta, the law of the land has been that you do not go to jail unless you know why (you have been charged) and you have had a chance to defend yourself (a fair trial).

Not any more.

Ten men, all foreigners, have been locked up in Britain's most feared prisons without charge or trial.

They [the al-Qaeda suspects] have been arrested on the basis of intelligence, not evidence

Former Scotland Yard Commander Roy Ramm
The reason? They are, according to the security services, suspected of being connected to al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden's terror network.

In Camp X-Ray in Cuba at least seven British nationals are being held by the Americans because they are al-Qaeda suspects.

Again, the prisoners do not know why they are being held, nor have they had a chance to defend themselves.

How do we defend our open society from terror attacks without destroying the openness that sets us apart from our enemies?

This is the question that rises from the cases of the internees at Belmarsh and Camp X-Ray.

To some, it is a question with only one answer.

The threat to ordinary life from al-Qaeda is so great that the ordinary rules have got to be ripped up.

Public safety

Former Scotland Yard Commander Roy Ramm defended the decision to lock up 10 men in Britain without due process of law.

"In these dire times you have to take extreme measures," he said.

"They have been arrested on the basis of intelligence, not evidence.

Camp X Ray
At least seven British suspects are being held in Cuba
"The security services have got access to intelligence which indicates that these individuals are involved in terrorism and do pose a threat to UK security.

"Look at the civil liberties of the British public - the liberty to walk through London and not be in fear of a terrorist attack, to travel on the tube in safety - that's why we're locking people up.

"That's the civil liberty I think we should be protecting."

In Belmarsh, the al-Qaeda suspects are called "the binmen" - after Bin Laden's name.

Solicitor's concerns

They cannot all be named for legal reasons, but they insist on their innocence.

It is not easy defending people who are censured by the rest of society, but defence solicitor Gareth Pierce is used to it.

She defended the Guildford Four - Irishmen wrongly convicted of bombing the Surrey town - and, eventually, won the men's freedom.

The British state, the security services, and the courts had got it wrong.

She told me: "It's now a year since they were arrested. They don't even have a date for any hearing.

"They're not known, they're not seen, they're just hidden in Belmarsh Prison with no voice.

"All of the so-called evidence has been submerged. It's all in secret. There can be no proper debate, there can be no real investigation."

Perhaps the worst thing for the detainees is the not knowing, the absolute uncertainty of what the future holds.

They would prefer to be charged and tried - even with treason - than left in a prison cell and forgotten.

Target UK: 4x4 Reports was on BBC One at 1930 GMT on Monday 2 December.

Investigative journalist John Sweeney answered questions in a live webchat after the programme.

Target UK: 4x4 Reports



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