The Terrorism Bill currently racing through parliament with barely a smatter of mainstream dissent looks set to be one of the most liberty-corrosive pieces of legislation for decades. Si Mitchell examines the implications of Jack Straw's latest attempt to remove the last of our residual rights to protest.
Squall Download 3, March/April 2000, pp. 24-26.
Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. - Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
Terrorism Bill 2000. - (1) A person commits an offence if - (a) he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism [as defined by the state] , or (b) he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind.
"Somehow the threat to the stability of the state has given way to threats to the corporate estate. That will be the basis for the new definition of terrorism. That is a desperately dangerous path to go down."
Alan Simpson is one of the few British politicians to be genuinely shaken by Jack Straw's introduction of the most overtly political law and order legislation since Hitler's proscription of the Jews.
The 2000 Terrorism Bill, currently whistling through the House of Commons and likely to be law by April, has generated little in the way of Parliamentary outcry (unlike its 1974 predecessor, The Prevention of Terrorism Act) despite proposing to outlaw various fundamental democratic rights, including the right to possess or pass on information.
The Bill is text book divide and rule stuff that will criminalise dissent and marginalise dissenters by threatening their wider support base with unlimited fines and lengthy jail sentences.
Home Secretary Jack Straw has given terrorism "a more modern definition" to combat "both the current and future terrorist threat". All this and new "special" powers for the police breaching existing British and international law.
Moving the Goal Posts
Taking their lead from the popular press, who liberally label anyone not overjoyed with creeping global destruction as eco-terrorists, New Labour have redefined terrorism as: "The use or threat, for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, of action which a) involves serious violence against any person or property, b) endangers the life of any person, or c) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public.
Simon Hughes MP was a lone voice trying to secure amendments during the Bill's committee stage: "The Bill changes the definition of terrorism as understood by the man or woman in the street." Hughes refers to the Oxford Dictionary description of: "The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims."
The bones of the new definition are taken from the FBI's own anti terror legislation where property takes precedence over democracy. Both government and big business have made no secret of how much the cost of direct action irks them.
"WEARING AN ITEM OF CLOTHING OR DISPLAYING AN ARTICLE TO AROUSE REASONABLE SUSPICION THAT HE/SHE IS A MEMBER OR SUPPORTER OF A "PROSCRIBED ORGANISATION" COULD LEAD TO ARREST AND A TEN YEAR SENTENCE AND UNLIMITED FINE."
Barrister, Ralph Smyth, currently working at the Council of Europe's Division of Public & International Law, was one of the first to criticise the Bill. "The differentiation between those taking action for moral reasons and those doing so for naked greed is illogical and shows how the obsession with the invisible hand of the market has clouded the minds of those responsible for the Bill," he says. Adding, on a more positive note: "Perhaps some creative activists could argue that multinationals are endangering the public's safety with their bio-tech products for the advancement of neoliberal ideology."
Though the state and its agents are liable under the domestic provisions of the bill, the chances of a successful prosecution are slim, and they are still exempt for any overseas incitement. Propoganda watcher, Noam Chomsky, explains the guiding principle on how the state defines terrorism: "Their terror is terror, and the flimsiest evidence suffices to denounce it and to exact retribution; our terror, even if far more extreme, is merely statecraft, and therefore does not enter into the discussion of the plague of the modern age [terrorism]."
Parliament - An act of terror
Straw's own logic may go some way to explaining the proposals. "If we look back over the past 25 years, we can see that the [anti-terrorism] powers have been used proportionately," he says, without reference to the Guildford Four, the Birmingham six or the 98 per cent of people detained under the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act who were innocent of any crime. He claims that there are "adequate non-violent means for expressing opposition and dissent". Smyth points out that the 'life endangering' and 'health and safety' aspects of the Bill could be used to prosecute activists building fortifications at protest sites, that would be seen as posing risks both to themselves and their bailiffs.
However, it is likely that animal rights activists will be the first domestic dissenters to be pursued under the Bill (being closest to what the public perceives as terrorism).
The consultation document which preceded this Bill explicitly noted some of the activity which the bill intended to prevent: "Animal and environmental rights activists: high cost of damage from attacks on abbatoirs, laboratories, breeders, hunts, butchers, chemists, doctors, vets, furriers, restaurants, supermarkets and other shops."
Not wishing to appear extreme, Straw claimed that the activities of Greenpeace would not be classed as terrorism. However the environmental group's involvement in pulling up GM crops would fall foul of this law.
The authorities' inability to understand non-hierarchical organisation (and their inability to get conspiracy charges to stick) has generated a clause aimed at anyone "directing" an activist organisation. 'Organisation' is defined as any group of people meeting to discuss a potentially 'terrorist' act and 'directing' can be at any level (booking a room? facilitating a meeting?). The maximum sentence is life imprisonment.
"THE MERE THREAT OF BECOMING INCRIMINATED BY ACCEPTING CORRESPONDENCE OR LITERATURE FROM ANY CAMPAIGNING GROUP MAY WELL BE ENOUGH TO MAKE POTENTIAL 'LIBERAL' SUPPORTERS DELIBERATELY AVOID BECOMING INFORMED."
According to Smyth: "A combination of dirty tricks, provoking of riots and slick media manipulation will be used to divide the radicals from the liberals." Dirty tricks in the form of propaganda, damning press articles and incitement, played a major roll in Northern Ireland, against the striking miners and are becoming increasingly prevalent against Reclaim The Streets and anti GM activists. (see RTS press complaint about Sunday Times arms allegation. UNDEGROUND UPDATE)
Under the 'possession for terrorist purposes' and 'collection of information' clauses anyone accused of having information "likely to be useful" to someone preparing a terrorist act will have to prove either they didn't have it or that they had reasonable excuse to possess it. Failing to do so could mean a sentence of ten years. The Corporate Watchers' Address Book or the Genetix Snowball Handbook have been cited, by the Bill's opponents, as prime examples of incriminating literature, and campaigning journalists are likely to be targeted with these clauses. (Journalists will also be hit by the 'duty to disclose information' clause which obliges them to hand over any information they come across in a professional capacity as well as acting as a potential gag, this is likely to make activists less keen to talk to the press, leaving an information vacuum, no doubt to be filled by government spin.)
The mere threat of becoming incriminated by accepting correspondence or literature from any campaigning group may well be enough to make potential 'liberal' supporters deliberately avoid becoming informed. As every despot knows, fear is the greatest censor of ideas.
Straw's desire to "tackle fundraising and support networks" by scaring people away from activities they are entitled to do in a democracy is open to challenge under the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA). The HRA will incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. By introducing contradictory legislation, the government may be leaving it up to the judges, who will set the legal precedents, to see which is more important democracy or control.
Civil rights group, Liberty, have identified several potential violations of the ECHR, including new police powers to arrest on suspicion (the return of the discredited 'sus' laws - exposed as being little more than intimidation and information gathering exercises). The government had also intended to apply for an opt-out (derogation) of the ECHR to be able to hold people without charge for an extended period of seven days, though has since thought better of it. It is the introduction of new police powers that Jack Straw says is the main purpose of the Bill. He claims they are not designed to be used where actions "turn ugly". Though one of the more lasting memories (in the mainstream psyche) surrounding the J18, City of London, protests is the repeated description of 'planned' and 'orchestrated' violence.
Other "special powers" include permission to search without a warrant, where a suspect must then give an explanation for anything found (another reversal of the burden of proof), and the ability to declare a cordon around a designated area for up to 28 days (long enough for an eviction?) and demand anyone inside it to leave.
Once a campaigning group's name has been sufficiently blackened, in the eyes of the public, the Home Secretary will be able to proscribe (ban) them. It would become an offence not only to be a member of a banned group, but to organise or address a meeting, where a member of it speaks. Not only support, but encouraging support (for example saying it should not be banned), would become an offence.
"IF YOU'VE BEEN INVOLVED IN ANY CAMPAIGN THEY START USING ANTI-TERRORIST POWERS AGAINST, YOU WOULD NOT BE BEING AT ALL PARANOID TO EXPECT A VISIT FROM THE POLICE AND A FREE TRIP DOWN THE STATION."
Though a Proscribed Organisations Appeal Committee (POAC) will be set up under the Bill, the appeal will only be along the lines of Judicial Review where the legality, but not the merits, of the decision to proscribe can be challenged. The POAC will meet in secret and need not disclose its reasons for dismissing an appeal. You get a hearing. But not a fair hearing.
Under this section of the Bill "wearing an item of clothing or displaying an article to arouse reasonable suspicion that he/she is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation" could lead to arrest and a ten year sentence and unlimited fine.
If the Home Secretary sees fit to ban the ALF, will everyone in vegan shoes be arrested? If he bans RTS, will all stilt walkers get collars felt? (Might need the flying squad for that one.) The banning of a hardline Islamic group could lead to some serious compromising of the police's already questionable impartiality.
As the 'terrorism' under the Bill can occur in the UK or overseas, anyone involved in solidarity with movements from abroad may find themselves prosecuted (particularly under pressure from foreign governments that Britain may be trying to keep sweet). Critics are already listing Ghandi, Mandela and Jesus Christ as historical figures you would not have wanted to have been caught supporting. Today, campaigning for the liberation of Tibet may go unpunished. But will backing less 'comfortable' causes such as Palestinians fighting for recognition in the West Bank, or opposing Western sanctions against Libya be as readily overlooked.
Ralph Smyth says: "If you've been involved in any campaign they start using anti-terrorist powers against, you would not be being at all paranoid to expect a visit from the police and a free trip down the station." Though opposition to the Bill is growing, it is unlikely to be blocked or receive significant amendments (several have been proposed including bringing the Bill into line with the ECHR and removing the reverse proof burdens and the references to property). Smyth believes how much they will use this Act will depend on how much society consents to its use. Yet, like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, it is likely the powers will not be used for some time and then be slowly brought in to play.
Italy has recently reintroduced terrorist legislation from the 1970s against activists, jailing three for sabotaging an Alpine building site for high speed trains (two have subsequently committed suicide, the third got 6 years 8 months). The Italian state prosecutor explained the thinking behind the prosecutions: "It was not so much the nature of their crimes, but for the popular consensus which they create in a potentially explosive situation." Terrorists, it would seem, are those who carry out the will of the people. In Britain the more cynical commentators are suggesting that this Bill has little to do with any potential terrorist threat and more to do with silencing dissenting voices that are beginning to muster some serious support. Blair is still reeling from the embarrassment of going against the wishes of 70 per cent of the population over GM foods.
The final article of the Universal Declaration says that no state can "perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights set forth herein [the Declaration]". Straw says his Bill is "simply protecting democracy". Though the establishment's historians probably won't record it, those that defy the 2000 Terrorism Bill may well go down as the real protectors of democracy.
To keep up to date with the passage of the Bill and opposition to it check:
Text of UK Government Terrorism Bill -
Home Office Terrorism Bill web page:
The best way of being kept up to date with the campaign is to subscribe to the email list. You can do this by accessing the web page at -
Contact the Home Office to protest against this legislation
FFI on Italian anti terror measures vs activists:
DOWNLOAD THIS & YOU COULD BE A TERRORIST - The new Terrorist Bill is currently rushing through parliament - with scant opposition - 16-Mar-2000
DRESS UP FOR YOUR RIGHTS - Protest march in Newcastle against the Terrorist Bill - 23-Mar-2000
PARK PEPPERED WITH SERGEANTS AS 'TERROR' HITS ISLINGTON - Sgt Pepper's album cover re-inacted by activists to protest against upcoming Terrorism Bill - 01-May-2000
TERRIBLE TERROR BILL LAW NEXT YEAR - The draconian new Terrorism Act about to come into force - 18-Nov-2000
'TERRORISTS' ATTACK T.A. - The Terrorism Act comes into force, with demonstrations to highlight repressive measures in new law - 15-Mar-2001