As criticism of the government’s proposals to extend secret trials to civil courts increases, the Guardian today reports that the government has clearly admitted that one of the main motives behind the proposals is to limit “reputational and political costs” arising from allegations of British complicity in the abuse of detainees abroad. The disclosure is contained in the Equality and Impact assessment of the proposed Justice and Security Bill which also details the disproportionate effect of the proposed changes on black and Asian Muslim men.
From the Guardian:
“The government has admitted that a key motive for its plan to expand secret courts is to shield itself politically from charges that Britain has been complicit in the abuse of detainees abroad.
“Ministers have previously argued that more secret courts are needed to protect national security. But documents seen by the Guardian make it clear the government believes it would also benefit politically from the measure because it could defend itself against sensitive charges behind closed doors, without the details ever being made public.
“The admissions are contained in official "impact assessments" of the justice and security bill.
“The bill, which will be debated at the Liberal Democrat conference on Tuesday in a move from the party's grassroots to overturn the policy, is seen by critics as an attempt to prevent sensitive information in the hands of the security and intelligence agencies from being disclosed in court. High-powered Lib Dem lawyers including Lord Marks QC have been lined up by the leadership to defend the bill's aims at the conference, and to reject the move from party activists to throw out key passages of the bill.
A number of cases have been brought against the government in recent years in which claimants have accused the government of complicity in their torture and abuse. They include the high profile case of former Guantanamo detainee, Binyam Mohamed, as well as more recent legal action brought by Libyans Abdel hakim Belhadj and Sami al-Saadi.
Under the new proposals, victims and their lawyers would be prevented from seeing the evidence against them and would be represented instead by ‘special advocates’. The government claims that judges and not ministers would decide which cases would be carried out in such a manner. This has been challenged by the Labour Party with shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan arguing that the Government’s claim of the process being ‘judge-led’ was “positively misleading”.
The article continues, “The impact assessment documents admit that the benefit of the bill, from the government's point of view, is that it would reduce "reputational and political costs to the UK associated with the current system, whereby the government can be unable to defend itself from the serious charges of complicity in false imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals overseas"”
“The government also admits that the potentially adverse impacts of the bill "are likely to fall on black and Asian Muslim men by virtue of their over-representation in civil cases involving national security where sensitive information is being considered".
“Many recent court cases, the government continues, "involve claimants who are men from the following racial groups: Asian, Middle Eastern, north African, and from the following religion: Islam".
Defending the proposals, the advocate general for Scotland, Lord Wallace said that “we are trying through the reforms to make it easier for evidence to be challenged. At present, so much evidence is subject to public interest immunity certificates that the whole case can be gutted. Our proposals allow the security service to be examined judicially where otherwise the case might just be pulled and settled without any independent judicial examination of the allegations.”
The political motive for holding trials in secret is something which has been rigorously challenged by civil liberties groups and other critics since the proposals became public. One MP has compared the proposals as the “tools of dictatorship”. The revelation of the political motives behind them causes one to question the Government’s commitment to basic principles of open justice and to its commitment to a “complete revolution in transparency”.
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