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The Cameron Government's secret courts

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7 March 2013 11:42

Cynthia Banham is a former diplomatic correspondent for Fairfax and a PhD candidate at the ANU. This is part 3 of her series on counter-terrorism after the 9/11 decade. Part 1 here; part 2 here.

To get an idea of the level of concern in the UK over the Cameron Government's proposed Justice and Security Bill, this is what the British army's most senior lawyer from the 2003 Iraq war said about it last month:

The Justice and Security Bill has one principle aim and that is to cover up UK complicity in rendition and torture. The Bill is an affront to the open justice on which this country rightly prides itself and, above all, it is an affront to human dignity. The fact that some of those individuals who are complicit in rendition and torture can not only assist in the drafting of the Bill but also vote to cover their tracks is a constitutional scandal.

The Bill in question would allow the government to use 'closed material procedures' – previously only used in a very limited number of immigration and deportation cases — in civil cases it deems to raise national security concerns (here's a recent UK parliamentary report on the bill).

One of the reasons there is so much consternation about the Bill concerns how it came about, who wants it, and why.

Basically, it arose out of a series of embarrassing and damaging civil cases brought against MI5 and MI6 (its London headquarters pictured above) by former British nationals and residents detained at Guantanamo Bay who alleged the intelligence agencies were complicit in their torture and extraordinary rendition during the time of the Blair and Brown governments. Revelations made in those cases led the Cameron Government, on winning power, to establish a Detainee Inquiry into British torture complicity and to pay compensation to the former detainees.

The Bill is said to be the work of M15 and M16, who argue that allowing evidence about matters such as their involvement in torture could stop foreign intelligence services such as the CIA from sharing intelligence with them.

In the courtroom scenario M15 and M16 envisage, a claimant would not be allowed to be present in court, they would not be allowed to know the case against them, and they would not be allowed their own lawyer (they would have a security-cleared special advocate instead). In other words, the Cameron Government's response to disturbing revelations made in open UK courts during the last decade about the involvement of M15 and M16 in the torture of British citizens and residents is to close the courts.

That's why many in the UK, among them some of the Government's own members, are so concerned. Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, a long-time campaigner on rendition, has co-authored a report in which he argues the Bill 'would make it harder to uncover official wrongdoing in matters such as extraordinary rendition (the kidnap and torture of individuals by the state)'.

It's also why 702 British lawyers, including the army lawyer quoted above, signed a letter denouncing the Bill as 'contrary to the rule of law' last week. In the words of those lawyers, the Bill will 'fatally undermine the court room as an independent and objective forum in which allegations of wrongdoing can be fairly tested and where the Government can be transparently held to account'.

Photo by Flickr user garryknight.

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