The US Supreme Court made the right decision yesterday, giving to the interns of Guantanamo rights to justice from the civilian courts in the USA.
One of the many attacks upon our liberties perpetrated by this Labour government was its acquiescence in the arrest and detention without charge or trail of UK citizens at Guantanamo. I and others spoke out against this, urging the then Prime Minister to bring them to trial for terrorist plotting or to give them their freedom if there was no evidence of wrong doing. It took all too long before the UK authorities negotiated the homecoming of the detainees, for their freedom or their punishment.
When great democracies form a coalition to champion liberty around the world it is especially important that they do not damage that liberty they wish to champion in the name of security. Of course in extreme and dangerous wartime conditions combattants have to be locked up under the rules applying to military prisoners. There may have been a case for this in the early days of the Iraq conflict, but once the President had declared victory and the troops became policemen in a new democracy established by the invasion the authorities should have charged or released the prisoners.
Some think this position is naÃ¯ve. Surely, they say, if we have suspicions about these people and think they might be planning mass murder in our countries, we should lock them up for long periods? Such conduct breeds distrust with minority communities in our own society, acts as a further grievance to recruit more evil people of violence and damages the very causes we hold dear. If the authorities have suspicions about certain people, we have given them powers to keep them under surveillance. Such powers are designed both to protect us, by gaining advance warning of any evil they may be planning, and to allow the security services to collect evidence so they can be brought to trial.
The UK governmentâ€™s idea that it should be able to arrest people on suspicion and then hunt the evidence of wrong doing is dangerous as well as wrong. Let us suppose the UK authorities rightly have worries about an individual. If they arrest him and detain him for 42 days in order to try to find evidence that he has committed an offence already they alert all other members of his network to their suspicions. Those who have not been arrested can then destroy evidence, lie low, leave the country for a time or do whatever it takes to avoid arrest. If, on the other hand, the authorities use their powers to intercept communications and eavesdrop, they have more chance both of collecting evidence to charge the first person with an offence, and of finding out who all the others are. Terrorists do not normally operate on their own.
Liberty is not just the right approach. It may also be our best security.