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Home > Politics

The Belmarsh Terror Appeals: What's their beef?

2 July 2004

We're finally nearing the climax of the controversial gameshow that has the whole nation hooked: Big Blunkett.

They've managed to avoided being 'nailed' for football hooliganism, they've managed to remain chief constables, so now nine lucky contestants are through to the final round where they get to appeal against their high security imprisonment. But don't be fooled by the big jumpy guide dog keeping scores - this game show isn't all fluffy fun. Devious host David Blunkett has made sure of that. The catch? Neither the contestants nor their lawyers are allowed to know what they're appealing against!

What hilarious Saturday evening entertainment it would make, but, alas, when appeals for nine of the suspect terrorists held at Belmarsh prison begin next Wednesday they will not be televised. In fact they won't be open to the public at all. The fun is reserved for members of the high court only. And devious David of course.

If appealing against unknown charges sounds like a rather perverse concept, it should be pointed out that it is at least consistent with the way the detainees have been treated from the moment they were arrested over two years ago. None of them has ever been told what they are accused of and none of them has actually been tried. Both of which are clear breaches of the European Convention of Human Rights and any British definition of justice.

Blunkett seems to know what he's doing though. After all, these suspect terrorists are foreign - and let's face it, that means that there's a pretty good chance that they really are terrorists, so there's no need to worry about old-fashioned things like trials. At least, that's the assumption on which anti-terrorist laws currently rest.

Thanks to a bit of legislation strapped onto immigration laws late in 2001, any non-UK national who the authorities decide might be a terrorist can be treated just like a convicted drug-dealing paedophilic mass-murderer with a sideline in arson. Only with fewer rights.

In fact, even Saddam Hussein himself has more rights than the untried suspect terrorists; at least he knows what he's been locked up for, and how long he's likely to be there.

The Home Office argues that the detainees are free to leave the country whenever they choose. After two years, though, perhaps the Home Office might want to consider why the detainees haven't taken up this generous offer? As asylum seekers they perhaps face torture or the death penalty in their own states, and it's hardly likely that they will be welcomed back with open arms if they are sent home as suspected terrorists.

So instead they have chosen (using this special Blunkettian definition of the concept of choice) to remain in a prison which one of them described as 'worse than an Israeli jail'. And not knowing what they're accused of, or how long they can expect to be there, has taken its toll mentally.

One detainee, Abu Rideh, had to be moved to Broadmoor high security hospital due to failing mental health, whilst an unnamed detainee known as G was released and is now under house arrest because of mental illness. Blunkett was, naturally, furious that prisoners are escaping his clutches by cleverly going mad. Having failed to prevent the release of G, he instigated regular psychiatric checks in prisons, with the bizarre logic that this would allow terrorists to develop their mental health problems in prison and stop them escaping into mental hospitals.

Instead of stomping up and down the steps of the high court to make it increasingly difficult for the detainees to get out of prison for any reason at all, Blunkett's energy might be put to better use arranging to have actual trials for the prisoners. At the moment there's nothing to say whether they are terrorists or not - although the basis for the original arrests started to look questionable when one of the suspect terrorists, released in March, was said by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission to have been detained on evidence that was 'wholly unreliable'.

Blunkett disagreed and tried to take the matter to the appeal court, who quite rightly told him to get stuffed. Perhaps, then, in spite of the ludicrously unfair obstacles in the way of the detainees and their lawyers, the appeals starting next week will see some balance restored to the scales of justice.

But Blunkett, as we have seen, hates not getting his own way, and already has other plans. Rather than see more people escape on the sneaky pretext of being innocent, Blunkett now wants to ship as many of the prisoners as possible back to their countries of origin. The only thing standing in his way is the aforementioned problem of their own countries possibly wanting to lop their heads off - we're not supposed to send people back to that sort of thing.

But Blunkett has suggested that by working with foreign governments he can get 'some guarantees that they won't immediately be executed'. Never has the word 'immediately' been used in a less reassuring context. In any case, 'guarantees' of this nature are likely to be ignored, as was the case with two Egyptian asylum-seekers 'repatriated' by Sweden in 2001.

But the important thing is, getting such guarantees would fulfill our legal obligations towards the prisoners, allowing Blunkett to get the bothersome things off his hands. And who can blame him for wanting to do that?

For over two years he's had the burden of keeping them in prison in the worst conditions the country can muster, not to mention the financial worry of paying all their mental hospital bills when they go mad. Let's face it, if they get tortured or killed once they leave, at least Blunkett can say he did everything he could for them.

Though it's still a pretty raw deal if they were never terrorists to begin with.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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