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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 January, 2004, 09:59 GMT
'Festering sore' on UK conscience

By Ben Davies
BBC News Online's political staff

Powers which allow people to be detained in the UK without trial are a "festering sore" on the nation's conscience, a leading civil rights campaigner has said.

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti contrasted British powers to detain foreign terror suspects with the ongoing dispute about UK citizens held by the US at Guantanamo Bay.

She also told BBC News Online that home secretary David Blunkett should not let his political judgement be clouded by his ambition to live at Number 10.

Shami Chakrabarti is the director of civil rights group Liberty
She said: "I think it's very dangerous if the incumbent [at the Home Office], whatever political party they are a member of, has aspirations to be prime minister.

"I think that's a huge problem because then the temptation is to play politics with these incredibly difficult issues like asylum and race."

And - echoing a New Labour slogan - she said that increasingly under this government civil liberties seem to be "for the many and not for the few".

High fliers

Chakrabarti was appointed director of Liberty in September and, at 34, is following a well trodden route to a political career in Labour - were she to want one.

Her predecessors at Liberty - formerly known as The National Council for Civil Liberties - include Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt.

But Chakrabarti insists: "I'm not a member of a political party and there's no political party that I'm interested in joining."

She trained as a barrister and spent six years at the Home Office before joining Liberty on 10 September, 2001 rising to her current post two years later.

She says that as Liberty's first Asian director her appointment dispels a myth about the organisation being the preserve of white lefties.

National Front

"I think that possibly in the wider community and in the NGO [non-government organisation] community Liberty may have been seen as a bit of a white, liberal organisation - that clearly can't be true if I'm director."

Her experience as an Asian growing up in the 1970s when the National Front were marching and white neighbours espoused the views of Enoch Powell have inevitably influenced her.

But that is not the reason, she says, that Liberty is currently so preoccupied with immigration and asylum.

"The reason we've found ourselves increasingly in this territory is because asylum seekers are human beings who have been completely degraded and dehumanised by successive governments but, I have to say, by this one more than its predecessor.

David Blunkett
Approach to asylum 'misguided and dangerous'?
"This latest Asylum Bill goes further in attacking the fundamental human rights of asylum seekers than any previous piece of legislation.

"I have to say that I don't want to doubt the home secretary's motives but I do think his approach is fundamentally misguided and incredibly dangerous.

"I also find it distasteful as the daughter of lawful immigrants to this country and as someone who is a member of a minority community for it to be suggested that I need to look the other way, when asylum seekers are being dehumanised in order to save my own skin from the BNP."

Destitute children?

She argues that asylum seekers are being degraded more than any group in the UK including convicted criminals.

It is one thing, says Chakrabarti, to remove failed asylum seekers who have been given a fair hearing and due legal process but she argues the effect of David Blunkett's Asylum Bill will be to make people - in some cases children - destitute.

It's a festering sore on our conscience
Shami Chakrabarti
"It is not acceptable. We do not do this to convicted criminals. We do not do this to murderers and rapists in this country," she says.

It is also the home secretary that she criticises when she attacks anti-terror legislation.

When we meet, at the BBC's Westminster offices, the first issue Chakrabarti cites when asked to sum up 2003 is the detainment without trial of terror suspects.

'Sore'

She says it is an "absolute scandal" that people have been incarcerated under Section 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

In December an influential parliamentary committee recommended the measure was revoked.

Chakrabarti said: "It's a festering sore on our conscience - it's a complete suspension of the rule of law and everything we believe about the presumption of innocence the right to a fair trial."

She contrasts the treatment of suspects in the UK with pronouncements by members of the government about the importance of building democracy in Iraq.

"When they talk about the capture of Saddam Hussein and how he should receive a fair trial.

"When they talk about the importance of building a democratic future in Iraq and for setting an example of democracy."

Popular currency?

Chakrabarti says the treatment of the prisoners held in Britain and "the other scandal" of those detained by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay are the "great Western liberal democracies setting a terrible example to the world that they want to democratise".

Asked what she would like to see for 2004, Chakrabarti says she wants the whole idea of civil liberties to become popular currency.

Legislation in this country has, I think, become the highest form of spin
Shami Chakrabarti
She cites the US, where rights are enshrined in a written constitution and consequently are prominent in the public consciousness.

"The real litmus test of a human rights culture in any society is whether human rights can operate to protect the disenfranchised, the marginalised, the wretched the demonised."

Then referring back to New Labour's slogan she adds: "So to say it's not about the few it's about the many, is really quite distasteful."

Highest form of spin?

Another criticism Chakrabarti has of the government is what she sees as a tendency to view legislation as the panacea of all ills.

She uses the example of Dunblane where the appalling school massacre triggered a total ban on handguns.

"Something happens and the cry goes out 'home secretary!' and too often, for too long the answer has been: 'I'm going to legislate'."

She says that in her six years at the Home Office she worked on 12 bills.

"Legislation in this country has, I think, become the highest form of spin," she said.




SEE ALSO:
'Scrap anti-terror detention law'
18 Dec 03  |  Politics


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