There was an article in the Guardian yesterday regarding the nature of the Justice and Security Bill and the proposals included within it to extend ‘closed material procedures’, often referred to as secret trials, to civil courts. It is argued that the proposals included in the bill are directly related to the government’s embarrassment resulting from allegations of British involvement in torture.
From the Guardian:
“The justice and security bill is the direct result of evidence that emerged in court supporting allegations that MI5 and MI6 knew about the torture or inhuman and degrading treatment meted out by the CIA to terror suspects, including British citizens and residents, notably Binyam Mohamed.
“The high court, later backed by senior judges in the court of appeal, ruled that information the CIA had passed to MI5 and MI6 should be disclosed. Washington was furious. The British government, and in particular David Miliband, the foreign secretary at the time, was deeply embarrassed.
“There was a danger of further incriminating evidence emerging in court as UK citizens and residents who were held at Guantánamo Bay demanded compensation. To avoid disclosing what MI5 and MI6 may have known about the secret transfer of the detainees to the US military prison on Cuba and about their treatment, the government offered them expensive out-of-court settlements.
“Under pressure from the security and intelligence agencies – and the US – the coalition government decided to introduce a statute designed to prevent any intelligence information from being disclosed in civil court hearings ever again.”
Under the original proposals, the government would have been able to decide whether to withhold any intelligence it deemed ‘sensitive’ from an open civil court. However, following public and political pressure to amend the proposals- one MP, Andrew Tyrie described the proposals as “the tools of dictatorship”- the government ‘watered-down’ the proposals so that judges will now have to decide whether evidence would be heard only in secret in the interest of ‘national security’. The nature of the proposals still remains the same however, as defendants and their lawyers would be denied rights to see the evidence against them.
The article continues, “Critics say the bill represents a creeping move towards more and more secret courts… Evidence of British collusion in the abuse and rendition of terror suspects to places where they risked being tortured – including evidence of MI6's role in the rendition in 2004 of two Libyan dissidents into the hands of Muammar Gaddafi's secret police in Tripoli – might never have seen the light of day had the bill been in place.
“Senior Liberal Democrats have not all been persuaded and will express their concern about the bill at their conference in Brighton this month. A motion says the bill's proposals for "closed material procedures", as they are called, form no part either of the Liberal Democrat or Conservative manifestos in 2010, or the coalition agreement.
The government has had to deal with repeated cases of ‘embarrassment’ similar to the cases of two Libyan rebel leaders who allege British complicity in their rendition and torture. For example allegations were put forward earlier this year by the last British prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Shaker Aamer, who argued that British security services were complicit in his torture.
As we have previously noted, the proposals’ significant encroachment on what are seen as basic civil liberties and legal traditions 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'. The Conservative Party in 2010 similarly promised to 'restore our civil liberties'. It would appear that the government is simply not willing to stand by basic principles of open justice and democratic accountability; values which define a democratic society in which everyone is equal before the law.
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