Saturday, April 16, 2005

The problem with control orders

Last month, in response to the Law Lords' ruling that it could no longer detain terrorist suspects without trial, the British government implemented a system of administrative "control orders", allowing it to restrict the freedom of movement, speech or association of suspects, or even place them under house arrest. Unfortunately, the new system shared the most obnoxious feature of the regime it replaced: the orders are issued by the Home Secretary rather than by a judge, and the evidence justifying them is not tested by any independent body. The flaws in this system are now becoming obvious, with the Home Office being forced to apologise to ten men subject to control orders for linking them to the London ricin plot.

The ten men were originally detained without trial for two years in Belmarsh prison. Following the Law Lords' decision, they were released on bail, but subjected to control orders on the basis that they "belonged to and have provided support for a network of north African extremists directly involved in terrorist planning in the UK, including the use of toxic chemicals". This was simply false - but because there was no independent oversight, it was not detected until challenged by the men's lawyers. Which really does make you wonder exactly how much attention the Home Secretary is paying when he signs these things...

It also makes you wonder exactly what else the Home Secretary hasn't paid attention to, and how much else of the "evidence" on which these orders is based is similarly bullshit. But the problem is, we simply have no way of knowing. It could be ironclad, or the security services could have convinced themselves of the men's guilt and ignored all evidence to the contrary. And we can't simply take their word for it. When people's liberties are being restricted, when they are being forbidden to speak with their families and made prisoners in their own homes, we must demand the very highest standards of evidence. The control order system simply does not meet that standard. It is unsafe, and should be abolished.