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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Terror or protest

I am sure that the vast majority of people in this country want to see anti-terrorism laws used for that purpose. Indeed the government is increasingly seeking a consensus for ever-stronger laws to deal with this threat and providing that an evidence-based case can be made for them and they are balanced and proportionate then I will support this process.

The problem comes when the government exceeds its remit and proposes measures that can not be justified or which are in conflict with important liberties. That can lead to a loss of public confidence, something that can also happen if these laws are used against peaceful protestors rather than terrorists.

The decision of the police to use stop and search powers created to address the threat of terrorism against peaceful demonstrators is a disturbing sign that our democracy has taken a wrong turn. What is more, as the Guardian points out, this is not the first time that the police have exceeded their remit:

The police tactics have echoes of the 2003 anti-war demo at RAF Fairford where law lords eventually ruled police had acted unlawfully in detaining two coachloads of protesters, who were stopped and searched and then turned back even though they were on their way to an authorised demonstration. Police used section 44 of the act 995 times at the Fairford peace camp, even though there was no suggestion of terrorist overtones.

The Guardian has established that at least two climate change campaigners have been arrested recently at Heathrow by officers using terrorism powers. Cristina Fraser, a student, was stopped when cycling near the airport with a friend and then charged under section 58 of the Terrorism Act. This makes it an offence to make a record of something that could be used in an act of terrorism.

"I was arrested and held in a police cell for 30 hours. I was terrified. No one knew where I was. They knew I was not a terrorist," she said.

Ms Fraser, a first-year London university anthropology student, has been on aviation demonstrations with the Plane Stupid campaign group, but claims she was carrying nothing at all. The police later recharged her with conspiring to cause a public nuisance.

If detention without charge is extended to 90 days are we to presume that future demonstrators will find themselves locked up for that period of time so as to spare the government embarrassment? Oh, and surely the whole point of a peaceful demonstration is to cause a public nuisance so as to get a message across? Will the government be seeking to outlaw democratic protest next?
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