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Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh


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Posted on Mar 6, 2013
AwayWeGo210 (CC BY 2.0)

By Victoria Brittain, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

At the same time, the dozen foreign Muslim refugees detained in the aftermath of 9/11 and held without trial for two years before being released on the orders of the House of Lords were rearrested. In the summer of 2005, the government prepared to deport them to countries they had originally fled as refugees.

All of them had been made anonymous by court order and in legal documents were referred to as Mr. G, Mr. U, and so on. This was no doubt intended to safeguard their privacy, but in a sense it also condemned them.  It made them faceless, inhuman, and their families experienced it just that way. “They even took my husband’s name away, why?” one wife asked me.

The women I was meeting in these years were mostly from this small group, as well as the relatives of a handful of British residents—Arabs—who were not initially returned from Guantanamo with the nine British citizens that the Americans finally released without charges in 2004 and 2005.

Perhaps no one in the country was, in the end, more terrorised than them, thanks to the various terror plots by British nationals that followed. And they were right to be fearful.  The pressure on them was overwhelming.  Some of them simply gave up and went home voluntarily because they could not bear house arrest, though they risked being sent to prison in their native lands; others went through years of house arrest and court appeals against deportation, all of which continues to this day.

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Among the plots that unnerved them were one in 2006 against transatlantic aircraft, for which a total of 12 Britons were jailed for life in 2009, and the 2007 attempt to blow up a London nightclub and Glasgow International Airport, in which one bomber died and the second was jailed for 32 years. In the post-9/11 decade, 237 people were convicted of terror-related offences in Britain.

Though all of this was going on, much of it remained remote from the world of the refugee women I came to know who, in the larger world, were mainly preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that, with Palestinian developments, filled their TV screens tuned only to Arabic stations.

These women did not tend to dwell on their own private nightmares, but for anyone in their company there was no mistaking them: a wife prevented from taking her baby into the hospital to visit her hunger-striking husband and get him to eat before he starved to death; another, with several small children, turned back from a prison visit, despite a long journey, because her husband was being punished that day; children whose toys were taken in a police raid and never given back; midnight visits from a private security company to check on a man already electronically tagged.

Here was the texture of a hidden war of continual harassment against a largely helpless population.  This was how some of the most vulnerable people in British society—often already traumatised refugees and torture survivors—were made permanent scapegoats for our post-9/11, and then post-7/7 fears.

So powerful is the stigma of “terrorism” today that, in the name of “our security,” whether in Great Britain or the United States, just about anything now goes, and ever fewer people ask questions about what that “anything” might actually be. Here in London, repeated attempts to get influential religious or political figures simply to visit one of these officially locked-down families and see these lives for themselves have failed. In the present political climate, such a personal, fact-finding visit proved to be anything but a priority for such people.

A Legal System of Secret Evidence, House Arrest, and Financial Sanctions

Against this captive population, in such an anything-goes atmosphere, all sorts of experimental perversions of the legal system were tried out.  As a result, the British system of post-9/11 justice contains many features which should frighten us all but are completely unfamiliar to the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom.

Key aspects for the families I have been concerned with include the use of secret evidence in cases involving deportation, bail conditions, and imprisonment without trial. In addition, most of their cases have been heard in a special court known as the Special Immigration Appeals Commission or SIAC, which is housed in an anonymous basement set of rooms in central London.

One of SIAC’s innovative features is the use of “special advocates,” senior barristers who have security clearance to see secret evidence on behalf of their clients, but without being allowed to disclose it or discuss it, even with the client or his or her own lawyer. The resignation on principle of a highly respected barrister, Ian Macdonald, as a special advocate in November 2004 exposed this process to the public for the first time—but almost no one took any interest.

And a sense of the injustice in this arcane system was never sufficiently sparked by such voices, which found little echo in the media. Nor was there a wide audience for reports from a team of top psychiatrists about the devastating psychological impact on the men and their families of indefinite detention without trial, and of a house-arrest system framed by “control orders” that allow the government to place restrictions of almost any sort on the lives of those it designates.

An even less noted aspect of the anti-terror legal system brought into existence after 9/11 was the financial sanctions that could freeze the assets of designated individuals.  First ordered by the United Nations, the financial-sanctions regime was consolidated here through a European Union list of designated people. The few lawyers who specialized in this area were scathing about the draconian measures involved and the utter lack of transparency when it came to which governments had put which names on which list.


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