The Prime Minister, Guantanamo Bay detainees and the rule of law

FRFI 174 August / September 2003

When Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the US Congress on 17 July, he spelled out the grounds for the ‘special relationship’ between the British and US ruling classes. These grounds are common beliefs, common goals and the defence of freedom. ‘...because all nations that are free value that freedom, will defend it absolutely, but have no wish to trample on the freedom of others’. The ruling class has comforted itself with such illusions for a very long time. Writing on the English Constitution in the late nineteenth century, AV Dicey defined the ‘rule of law’:

‘We mean in the first place, that no man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal manner before the ordinary courts of the land. In this sense the rule of law is contrasted with every system of government based on the exercise by persons in authority of wide, arbitrary, or discretionary powers of constraint.’

English law is littered with such fine notions and this one is said to be the most important: but at times when bourgeois rule is under threat, or British imperialism is challenged, the extension of such notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality before the law’ to the working class and oppressed becomes dangerous. Universality is quickly dispensed with. This has always been the case for British imperialism: from Asia to Africa to Ireland. The British have derogated from the terms of international treaties, breached human rights and introduced repressive legislation specifically to deal with Irish Republicans. ‘Being Irish means you’re guilty’ expresses exactly the abandonment of the rule of law for anyone engaged in the struggle for Irish self-determination. By such means the Birmingham 6 and the Guildford 4 served long prison sentences despite their innocence. By such means the Irish were demonised.

Now the British ruling class is at it again – once more under the leadership of the British Labour Party.

More than 650 prisoners are held by the US in appalling conditions in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba: some of them are children. They are not accorded any rights under international law and have been left in a legal limbo for the last eighteen months. By any international standards their detention constitutes torture. They are barely allowed contact with their families, they cannot appoint their own lawyers. They are interrogated (including by MI6) without legal representation. They are kept in open mesh ‘cells’, 6ft 8in x 7ft. Solitary exercise is allowed only twice a week. There have been 29 reported suicide attempts.

Nine of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay are British. Two of them, Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi, were among the first six detainees chosen for trial before the military kangaroo courts the US state has concocted especially to deal with them. They face trial in front of a military tribunal, ‘represented’ by a military defence team imposed on them by their gaolers, with the prospect of a possible death sentence if they do not plead guilty. There is no appeal, except to the US President, who has already made his mind up.

At the press conference following Tony Blair’s speech before the US Congress, President George Bush summed it up: ‘these are bad people’. ‘Let me just say, these were illegal combatants. They were picked up off the battlefield, aliens aiding and abetting the Taliban.’ (In fact this was not true of either Begg or Abbasi). Bourgeois law is reduced to its brutal essence; the presumption of guilt if you are associated with opposition to bourgeois rule.

The announcement that they will be the first to be tried was made shortly before Blair’s appearance in Washington: 163 MPs signed a Commons motion calling for repatriation. After 18 months apparent inaction, the British Labour government made a diversionary flurry of concern. Tony Blair was said to have persuaded George Bush to negotiate on the proposed trial arrangements to ensure that they complied with international law. There was some talk of repatriation for trial in Britain. This ‘special influence’ was to be the dividend of the Coalition.

What nonsense! It has been reported that the US offered, a year ago, to repatriate the two men if Britain would guarantee they would stand trial. This was rejected by Home Secretary David Blunkett, because he was not certain the CPS would consider it had sufficient evidence to press charges. The British government had been, in fact, in prolonged talks with the US defence department about the mechanics of the trials even before details of the trial procedures became public. Ruth Wedgwood, an adviser to the US Department of Defense, wrote in the Financial Times (10 July 2003): ‘From the chatter of certain British ministers, one might think this [trial procedure] was a great surprise. In fact the US has been consulting with the British government for months’.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, was sent to Washington to broker a deal on 21 July. In fact he was bartering the detainees’ human rights. He came back with fool’s gold: assurances that there will be no death penalty for the British detainees and they may be allowed to appoint their own lawyers as long as they don’t see all the evidence. This is a far cry from international law. If there is not enough evidence to convict these detainees in ‘ordinary courts of law’ in an ‘ordinary legal manner’, then they should be free. Anything short of this is a breach of their human rights: it is prejudice, not justice.
Just a little reminder of Tony Blair’s fine beliefs before the US Congress:

‘The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defence and our first line of attack. And just as the terrorist seeks to divide humanity in hate, so we have to unify it around an idea. And that idea is liberty.’
‘We must find the strength to fight for this idea and the compassion to make it universal.
‘Abraham Lincoln said: “Those that deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves”.
‘And this is the sense of justice that makes moral the love of liberty.’

The more this man pontificates about ‘liberty’, the more urgent is the task of opposing his vile hypocrisy and that of his disgusting party.

Carol Brickley


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