- Created: Wednesday, 20 May 2009 11:29
- Written by Carol Brickley
Shoot-to-kill in London
The execution of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell tube station on 22 July was a watershed for the Labour government’s array of anti-terrorist measures in the wake of the 7 July bombings. The government pretends to be genuinely combating the terrorist threat to Britain: in fact, its every move is based on a wealth of experience of terrorising communities across the world. Bloody war is being waged abroad and civil liberties systematically withdrawn here in Britain. Prime Minister Blair’s warning that ‘the rules of the game are changing’ encompasses indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay; the deportation of suspects to countries that practise torture; the admission of evidence extracted by torture; arbitrary detention; restrictions on the right to a fair trial, to the freedoms of conscience, expression and association. What were once inalienable human rights can now be suspended on the whim of a minister or even a police officer. The death of de Menezes lifted the lid on Labour’s agenda.
De Menezes, a young Brazilian, left his Tulse Hill flat in south London on the morning of Friday 22 July, to travel to north London to meet a friend. He caught a bus to Stockwell tube station and made his way to the platform. He was followed by a squad of armed undercover police who pushed him to the ground as he boarded the train, restrained him and then pumped seven bullets into his brain and one into his shoulder in a carriage full of terrified passengers.
Apparently his block of flats was placed under surveillance after the address was discovered in one of the rucksack bombs which failed to explode the previous day. According to the press, the identification of de Menezes as a suspect was bizarrely uncertain as the surveillance officer was ‘relieving himself’ at the time he left the flat. What is clear is that he was targeted as a suspect and followed.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair issued a statement that afternoon claiming the shooting was ‘directly linked’ to ongoing anti-terrorist investigations. The British gutter press were thrilled: ‘Shoot them all!’ read one headline.
As it soon became clear that Menezes had no connection with terror bombings whatsoever, a damage limitation operation became necessary. Politicians from Jack Straw to Charles Clarke to Tony Blair queued up to get the message across: that while the killing was deeply regrettable, the threat is so great that some innocent people may need to be sacrificed for the greater good.
On Saturday 22 July, the Met, forced to issue a statement confirming that de Menezes was not connected with terrorism, began the dirty tricks and counter-information. Menezes, they stated, was followed by surveillance officers ‘in the Stockwell area’ and ‘his clothing and behaviour added to their suspicions’. In fact, Tulse Hill is several miles from Stockwell: de Menezes could have been stopped before reaching the tube. The press was filled with graphic descriptions of how he ‘bolted down the escalator’ and ‘leapt over the barriers’ and was wearing ‘a chunky top’ or ‘unseasonal clothing’ which could have ‘concealed a bomb’. This was not true: de Menezes wore a T-shirt and denim jacket, used a travel card, and walked through the ticket barrier.
Then the Home Office began a crude attempt to vilify the victim, leaking stories that de Menezes was working illegally and had ‘a forged stamp’ in his passport – implying that he was less than innocent and that the police action was justified.
The lessons of British rule in Ireland
This catalogue of police and press lies has been the long rehearsed procedure of British imperialism wherever it has ruled – Malaya, Hong Kong, Aden, India, Kenya – indeed, every site of imperialist oppression, and nowhere more so than during its 35-year occupation of the north of Ireland. Since 1969, the Six Counties have been the proving ground for counter-insurgency, paramilitary policing and terrorising communities. The Prevention of Terrorism Act – introduced overnight by a Labour government in 1974 ostensibly as temporary emergency legislation, then cranked up annually thereafter – was primarily used to instil fear in Irish communities. Between 1974 and 1988, 97% of those arrested under the Act were released without charge. Only 1% were ever convicted of terrorism-related offences. Similarly, of the 700 people arrested under the Terrorism Act since 11 September 2001, half have been released without charge and only 17 convicted under the Act – with only three convictions related to ‘Islamic’ terrorism.
Muslim and Asian communities are now on the receiving end of the same treatment as the Irish. The British Transport Police announced on 1 August that ‘we should not waste time searching old white ladies’ – they would target specific ethnic minority groups for stop and search despite not being empowered to do so. In early September, Mayor Livingstone stated, as evidence of London’s tolerance, that although ‘faith hate crimes’ had risen from 72 in the three weeks before the 7 July bombings to 257 in the three weeks after, they had now, reassuringly, returned to the previous level. What about race hate crimes? Look at the Institute of Race Relations website (www.irr.org.uk) for a real picture of racist attacks since the 7 July bombings.
Shoot-to-kill became a central, though denied, feature of British operations in Ireland from the mid-1970s onwards. In 1988 the Gibraltar Three were shot by the SAS who claimed their lives were threatened, although there were no guns or explosives in the vicinity; in 1982, seven people were shot in a matter of weeks by a special RUC anti-terrorist unit. During the trials of the RUC men involved, it emerged that the police had consistently lied under instruction from senior officers. The subsequent investigation, led by John Stalker of the Manchester police, was derailed when he was suspended on bogus corruption charges. Despite a later admission by the British government that there was prima facie evidence of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, no criminal proceedings ensued.
Every time, lies are used to cover up murder, in Britain as in Ireland. The 1983 Police Complaints Authority found that the Met police was twice as likely as other police forces to open fire, including on the mentally ill. From the shootings of Steven Waldorf in 1983 to Harry Stanley in 1999, the police have lied about the real events and attempted to vilify the victims.
Sir Ian Blair has now admitted that a shoot-to-kill – or as he prefers to call it, a ‘shoot-to-kill-to-protect’ – policy exists in Britain. After the Waldorf shooting, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) drew up guidelines for armed operations. In 2003 these guidelines were secretly changed. The details have become public as a result of the de Menezes shooting: police are advised to shoot suspected suicide bombers in the head; no warning is required if the officer believes lives are threatened, and the police involved are not required to identify themselves. There is no evidence that Jean Charles de Menezes was given a warning and the armed police at Stockwell tube wore T-shirts and jeans.
The Ministry of Defence has admitted that the army provided technical assistance to the de Menezes surveillance operation. SAS soldiers are involved in the Special Reconnaissance Regiment formed to take part in anti-terrorist operations. Some sources claim that at least one of the armed men photographed outside Stockwell tube carried a specially-modified rifle favoured by the SAS and not issued to the SO19 Metropolitan Police firearms unit. Specialist counter-terrorist forces, with experience in the north of Ireland, have been drafted into London to help police. There are reports that ‘Special firearms officers are being deployed on secondment to MI5, which is opening eight offices in cities including Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham. The aim is to increase the surveillance of terrorist suspects and to penetrate radical networks with informants’.
Ken Jones, Chair of ACPO, maintains that while shooting terrorists is ‘not a perfect science’, it is intelligence led. There is little evidence of this. According to The Observer on 24 July, police are now trained to look for ‘precursor activities’ indicating imminent detonation of explosives, ‘thought to include a look of agitation combined with a sense of disconnection from the world’. In August, Sir Ian Blair stated that since 7 July there have been 250 incidents where police have suspected a suicide bomber and considered shooting. He promised that more people could be shot on London’s streets.
In contrast, Jean Charles de Menezes’ family, supporters and solicitors have provided a beacon of truth, rejecting the blandishments of Labour ministers and the Metropolitan police and pointing out that nothing can justify the killing of an innocent man. Solicitor Gareth Peirce expressed astonishment that the phrase ‘shoot-to-kill’ is used as if it were legitimate. The Landless Rural Workers’ Movement in Brazil stated: ‘Mr de Menezes was assassinated in cold blood…a victim of intolerance’ and called for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.
In the dark days to come, as the Labour government turns the screw and police marksmen take aim, remember this: British imperialism is on the offensive, treating the lives of working class and oppressed people as cheap. This attack creates an identity of interests – a common cause – between the working class and oppressed in Britain and internationally. This will be the basis on which we will build the movement to destroy imperialism. The opportunity must be seized.
FRFI 187 October / November 2005