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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
The war on terror: Civil rights
By Shami Chakrabarti
Director of Liberty

Shami Chakrabarti
Shami Chakrabarti became director of Liberty in September 2003

Following the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, America and its allies declared "war on terror".

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil rights group, Liberty, gives her views on how this war is being fought and explains what impact, she believes, this could have in the future.

Politicians and the media are always telling us we are fighting a war on terrorism. So let's ask ourselves, what are we fighting for?

Obviously it is necessary to defend the security of the nation, and government has a responsibility to defend its citizens against attack.

But that has always been the case and it is not something that most of us would object to. On the contrary, we expect it and we welcome it.


There has to be more to it and I think most of us, if asked what it is we are defending, would say something like "the British way of life", or "freedom and democracy".

Under emergency anti-terrorist legislation, foreign nationals can be jailed, without charge, indefinitely

I have absolutely no sympathy with groups that preach racial or religious hatred; who believe that women should play a subservient role to men, who deplore the notion that people should be free to believe in whatever they wish to believe in.

That is why I get so angry when our government, as part of its war on terrorism seeks to take away those very rights which mark Britain out as a free, democratic, society.

In Britain people charged with a crime are put on trial for a jury to decide their guilt or innocence. Or at least that used to be the case.

Now, under emergency anti-terrorist legislation, foreign nationals - legally resident in Britain but without citizenship - can be jailed, without charge, indefinitely.


Ten men have been held for over three years in high security jails because the Home Secretary believes they are a risk to national security.

The war against terror cannot be won by repression and military might
Yet he refuses to allow them a trial; refuses to say what his evidence is; refuses to say when, if ever, they will be released.

That is what used to happen in Iraq, in the Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany. It happens in many Middle Eastern and African states, in China, in North Korea and now in Great Britain.

Reports coming out of Belmarsh jail in London, where the majority of the detainees are held, indicate that several are close to a mental breakdown, indeed one has been admitted to Broadmoor, a high security mental hospital. It is known that some of them are beating their own heads against their cell walls.

Although not on the same scale, it is a mirror image of what the Americans have done in Guantanamo Bay. And it is wrong. Not only is it wrong it is counter-productive.

11 September

In the aftermath of the terrible events of 11 September, there was enormous, worldwide sympathy, for the victims of a terrorist outrage.

Police raids in Manchester under the Terrorism Act 2000
The government has sanctioned 'fishing expedition' raids on the Muslim community

But in the years that have followed, and as more is learnt about the treatment of those held in Guantanamo, there has been a marked change of attitude amongst many people.

It is a cliché, but one worth repeating over and over again, that the war against terror cannot be won by repression and military might.

Once you abandon those values which you profess to be defending, the terrorists have won a victory. And more than that, they begin to win recruits.

Alongside indefinite detention without trial, our government has sanctioned the police and intelligence services to mount "fishing expedition" raids on the Muslim community; not in the expectation that many terrorist suspects will be found, but as a signal to the community that they are under close surveillance.


Official figures show that thousands of people, most of them from ethnic minority communities, have been questioned but a mere 14 have been convicted.

This is creating enormous resentment, and fear, amongst decent law-abiding citizens.

Even worse it will drive a minority of young men and women in the direction of the extremists who will say, with some justification, that when it comes to basic human rights there is one rule for Westerners and another for the rest.

The policy is not new. It is similar to that adopted in another war; the one waged in the 1970s and 80s against Irish republicanism.

Senior IRA figures have publicly stated that the British suppression of civil rights during that period aided them enormously.

The policy didn't defeat the IRA, it strengthened them.

My fear is that our current "war on terror" will have a similar result.

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