Sunday, June 26 2016

Government u-turn on secret trials

There has been widespread coverage in the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Mail and on BBC News, on the Government's U-turn on proposals to extend the mandate of secret trials, known as 'closed material procedures'. The proposals are detailed in a Justice and Security bill, and have received widespread criticism from parliamentarians, civil liberty groups and the public.

From the Guardian:

"Liberal Democrats are claiming credit for ensuring that inquests will not be subjected to so-called "closed material procedures", which would mean that any information held by the security and intelligence agencies could be heard only in secret.

"However, the main purpose of the bill will remain - evidence and claims made by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ would be presented to the court but would not be disclosed to individuals seeking damages or making complaints. As a result, they would not be challenge [sic] the agencies.

"Instead, their interests will be presented by vetted "special advocates".

"Judges will decide whether to agree to a minister's request that evidence should be heard only in secret on grounds of national security.

"The bill will allow ministers to claim secrecy is needed on national security grounds for swaths of information, not only material in the hands of the security and intelligence agencies, according to reports of its contents circulating on Monday.

"Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, said on Monday: "So audacious were the original proposals, it's no surprise to see slight concessions designed to sweeten the bitter and unnecessary pill."

"Cori Crider, the legal director of the charity Reprieve, said: "This bill will leave [justice secretary] Ken Clarke's reputation as a civil libertarian in tatters.

""Let's all remember that this bill is coming at the very time when the UK is to be hauled into court over the rendition-to-torture of Gaddafi opponents Sami al-Saadi, Abdelhakim Belhadj and their young families. If the law goes through as drafted, the majority of evidence in those cases will never see the light of day. Surely Ken Clarke - and all of us - owe an open explanation to Khadija al-Saadi, rendered age 12.""

Amongst some of the major criticisms that have been leveled against the proposals are that those pursuing a case would not be made aware of the evidence held against them, that the public and press would be excluded from attending such trials, and that the proposals are an attempt to prevent further embarrassment to the Government caused by cases such as that of Binyam Mohamed. The Government has defended the measures stating that the proposals seek to protect intelligence-sharing agreements with Britain's allies as well as enhance national security.

The Guardian adds that, "Critics of the bill have pointed out that including inquests within the new regulations would have led to relatives of servicemen and women who died in action participating in hearings where sensitive material was clearly being excluded from public sessions."

Writing in the Daily Mail, which has published numerous articles opposing the proposals, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke lays out some of the changes to the bill and states that his original proposals were "too broad".

He writes:

"The reaction to the consultation has persuaded me that some of the suggestions we made for solving the undoubted problems were too broad.

"We are now not including proposals for inquests to hear intelligence material in secret.

"We have decided that a judge, not a minister, will make the final decision on whether proceedings should go into closed session. And only the parts of cases involving spies and national security will be heard in this way.

“Criminal cases were never and will never be affected by the changes.

"We are also using this opportunity to overhaul the way in which the intelligence and security services are themselves watched.

"Parliament, not the Prime Minister, will have the final say on the membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

"No evidence that can currently be heard in open court will be put into closed proceedings.

"For any claimant, or any reporter, the overall effect will be access to at least the same amount of information as under the previous rules, with the additional benefit that there will be an independent judgment on serious allegations.

"The Daily Mail has done a service to the public interest. I hope that during the passage of the Bill, we will win the support of its readers for an improved system that will protect the secrets of our intelligence services from public scrutiny but make sure that they remain accountable to the law, to Parliament and to the public."

As civil liberties campaigners point out, the fact that some of the core measures in the proposal remain- measures which significantly encroach on what are seen as basic civil liberties and legal tradition is testimony to how far the coalition parties have departed from some of their manifesto promises of 2010.

The Liberal Democrats in particular, stated in their election manifesto that they would "Restore and protect hard-won British civil liberties", which they aimed to do through a 'freedom bill'.

Moreover, the Conservative Party in 2010 similarly promised to 'restore our civil liberties'.

As with the replacement of control orders with 'Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures' (TPims) last year, electoral promises to roll back the security-bias approach to civil liberties that expanded under Labour and re establish an even balance between liberty and security, is increasingly looking hollow.

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