The use and abuse of anti-Terrorism laws

A 23 year old Welsh solider, Robert Clarke, is serving a 12 month Community Sentence for obstructing an anti-terrorism search. The former military man had planned to fly to Jordan to join Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS. Before boarding the flight, he was detained and instructed to hand over his smart phone and accompanying password. He refused.

The result is that Mr Clarke was detained, alongside others suspected of terrorism offences, a move so dangerous for him that he had to be transferred to solitary confinement. He will now spend the rest of his life obligated to inform employers of his conviction under the anti-terrorism acts, pay a ‘victim surcharge’ and serve his Community Sentence (only avoiding jail time in lieu of the time that he had already spent under lock and key).

Mr Clarke had come to the attention of the police via his social media statuses, which had indicated his intention to travel to the region. With this information, the police had sent several warnings to him of the dangers of such action. So, Robert Clarke had received military training, had clearly done his own research on what was involved and was sent various pamphlets and information from the police. Why, given that he had made a well-informed decision, was he prevented from going?

Another solider, a former currency trader who wisely hides his identity behind the name ‘Macer Gifford’, has himself been detained by the British Government on his way to successfully join the fight against ISIS; yet has never been formally arrested. This would suggest then, that until Robert Clarke had refused to hand over his phone pass-code he had not committed any ‘crime’. Three British men have died so far fighting alongside British and American-supported groups, none of whom were arrested or even detained under anti-terrorism laws.

So the act of booking a flight to Jordan in order to fight alongside forces supported by your Government is, in itself, not a criminal act. Robert Clarke had already been the subject of police surveillance and subsequent advisory communications. Receiving these had not deterred him, nor had they stated that following through on these proposed actions may be considered a crime, broadly because they aren’t. His ‘criminal’ activity came in refusing to comply with Schedule Seven of the Anti-Terrorism Act (2000).

This law is dangerously broad and empowers law-enforcement agencies to: detain a suspect for up to 9 hours; search an individual and keep their belongings for up to 7 days; deprive the individual of a publicly funded lawyer and take bio metric data of the suspect including fingerprints and DNA. It is also a criminal offense to fail to answer a question asked of you or hand over any of these belongings (as in Robert Clarke’s case). All of this can be exercised without the burden of having to demonstrate that an individual is a direct threat or the need to justify your suspicions. If a customs officer simply does not like the cut of your jib, they can enforce any or all of these powers.

But these worrying stop-and-search powers do not find themselves confined to the airport. Section 47A of the Anti-Terrorism Act allows for any uniformed officer to search any vehicle, again without need of suspicion, or any of its occupants. The apparent restrictions on these powers are that they must be used over a designated geographical area authorised by a senior officer. So far, these powers have not been enforced, but all it would take is one officer to believe that there is a ‘threat’ of an attack and supply the required authorisation.

These powers, Schedule Seven and Section 47A, replaced the repealed Sections 44-47, scrapped because of their considerable disregard for Human Rights. In the time that they were in force over 550,000 stop-and-searches took place. Just 0.6% of these (or just over 3,000) led to an arrest. The statistic that really leaves a pit in the stomach is that of the 509 arrests in 2009/10 just two of these were related to terrorism. This is according to official government statistics outlined in their own report on the Act and its powers.

So has Schedule Seven been more effective? Well according to the same Government report, ‘Terrorism in Great Britain: the Statistics’, over 360,000 people had been detained under section 7. Just 4% of these were detained for over an hour and 5,515 of these were kept for up to 9 hours, the maximum allowed by the law. There is no data on the number of subsequent arrests or how many of these arrests were then related to potential acts of terror.

We therefore have a data set of what is now approaching 1 million people that have been stopped, searched and detained. They have been stopped on the streets, in their cars and in their attempts to board a flight. Of this 1 million we know of just two, since 2009, who have been convicted of crimes relating to terrorism. That is a success rate of 0.0002% for these anti-terrorism laws. There are far more, like Robert Clarke, who have been criminalised by the laws themselves; over 5,000 convicted of other crimes following searches carried out by Sections 44-47 alone.

How many others are there who are unable to find employment because they have an Anti-Terrorism charge on their record? We have a set of laws which grant powers to law enforcement agencies which, far from keeping us safe, place any individual under the threat of detention without suspicion, deprived of a lawyer and submitted to searches without a warrant. These liberties would not be worth sacrificing even if they were successful, the fact that they fall so abysmally short of anything that could be considered effective is a matter of serious and grave concern.


Daniel is a Secondary School teacher in Buckinghamshire and a member of the Wycombe Conservative Association. Follow him on Twitter: @danielrdownes

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty

Photo courtesy of flickr.com/andrew_buckie

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