Shami Chakrabarti: Internment without trial is 'festering sore on national conscience'

The Monday Interview: Director of Liberty

Forget George Orwell's 1984. For Shami Chakrabarti, the new director of the human rights pressure group Liberty, inspiration comes from the latest Harry Potter adventure.

The barrister, 34, takes over as head of the organisation this morning with a mission to shrug off the image of civil liberties as something of interest only to liberal lawyers and the chattering classes.

"I've just finished reading the latest Harry Potter book, The Order of the Phoenix, and it's all about human rights," she says. "The Ministry of Magic is reigning in a climate of moral panic. Harry Potter goes before a disciplinary tribunal at the Ministry of Magic and they want to stitch him up with no proper evidence, on the basis of allegations, suspicion and lies.

"The owls are intercepted to and from Hogwarts, so we have issues of surveillance and it culminates in all these abuses of human rights. It's a wonderful story," she adds. "If we can't capitalise on that to get this message to the kids and parents reading Harry Potter, then I ought to resign."

Discussing the future of the pressure group in her office on the second floor of Liberty's unprepossessing terraced offices near Borough, south London, last week, Ms Chakrabarti brims with enthusiasm.

She had not yet taken over the director's office from John Wadham, who is leaving after eight years to become the deputy chairman of the Police Complaints Authority. "Elvis is still in the building," she jokes, expressing her trepidation at the scale of the job.

Leading figures from the organisation have gone on to senior jobs in Government. Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was its general secretary in the late 1970s, while Harriet Harman, now the Solicitor General, was its legal officer.

Ms Chakrabarti is not a high-profile member of a political party. And she is determined to get past the image of civil liberties campaigners as "whinging liberal lawyers". She laughs and jokes as she recounts sketches by the comedian Mark Thomas or scenes from the hit BBC comedy Goodness Gracious Me. "I'm not prepared to sit in a little bunker with people who care about human rights, drinking coffee in my kitchen, reading The Guardian and listening to Radio 4."

She says she wants to provide an alternative to the atmosphere of moral and political panic in Government. "In the short, medium and long term, how can we say something of wider and deeper relevance in this country about civil liberties and human rights?" She aims to persuade people that they are "not an expensive liberal luxury that makes you less safe. It is about explaining how human rights are of value to the taxi driver."

Her first campaign, launched today, has a populist touch, a warning to supermarkets not to abuse radio frequency technology, miniature microchips that can be built into cars, sewn into clothes or stuck behind the labels of tinned goods.

She had the idea on coming back to England after a week's holiday in the South of France, with her husband and 15-month-old son, to learn that Tesco had tested the anti-theft microchips in packaging. Such technology could make Britain the "surveillance capital of the world", she warned.

She speaks passionately about the plight of detainees held without charge under the Government's anti-terrorism legislation ­ a stain on the national conscience, she says. She also expresses vehement opposition to the idea of compulsory identity cards, warning that they could spark a wave of disobedience and become Labour's poll tax.

"I was a teenager under Thatcher, I served in the Home Office under Howard and then Straw, and now Blunkett is the Home Secretary and in terms of my political memory I can't readily think of a more authoritarian administration."

But she is less condemnatory of the Human Rights Act ­ dismissed by its critics as a lawyers' charter. "I feel it's a wonderful Act and I think it is tragic when its political parents disowned it when it was barely a toddler and left it to the wolves, and then joined the wolves."

Ms Chakrabarti was born in London in 1969, the child of Indian parents who moved to Britain in the 1950s, her father a book keeper and accountant, and her mother a shop assistant. She was brought up in north London on the borders of Harrow and Brent, and had a state education before gaining a place to study law at the London School of Economics.

She tells of her father's words when she discussed the Yorkshire Ripper case with him as a child. "I can remember sitting down and saw a map on the TV of where he had been operating and I remember saying something to my father about what they should do to this monster when they catch him. My father was very calm but incredibly emphatic about the death penalty, and why, in his view, the death penalty was wrong.

"He said to me, 'No legal system in the world is infallible. And even if it is one person in a million who is innocent, imagine if you were that person, imagine your feeling as you were climbing the scaffold saying your last prayer and saying that I did not do this, but it is the end of your life.' That has stuck with me."

But at university, she was more interested in becoming a screenwriter than a lawyer, and she describes how she skipped lectures in contract law to watch movies at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank in London. But her hopes of making a quick fortune as a city lawyer to fund a Hollywood career ebbed away. Instead, she studied for the Bar.

Her private practice lasted less than a year before she took a job as a Home Office legal adviser. She worked on the 1996 Asylum Bill before working on legislation, including the Human Rights Act, under Jack Straw and then leaving to become Liberty's in-house lawyer.

Ms Chakrabartiis concerned at the politicisation of the Civil Service and laughs to hear that she still appears on the Home Office careers website.

She joined Liberty on 10 September 2001, the day before the al-Qa'ida attacks on New York and Washington. She is scathing about the legislation that followed, which allowed the detention without trial of terrorist suspects from abroad.

"On December 15 we will be marking the second anniversary of internment without trial in this country and seven or eight people will have been banged up without trial for two years," she says. "That is the biggest festering sore on the national conscience. It's one which is not high enough up the political agenda, the legal agenda and the public agenda.

"It's important to make the connection between the rights those people need and what we have done to the rule of law in this country and what is happening in Guantanamo Bay.

"We have to remind people that Britain has its own moral equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, in Belmarsh prison and a couple of other high-security insti-tutions in this country. We have suspended the rule of law."

THE CV

NAME: Shami Chakrabarti

BORN: Hampstead, London, 16 June 1969

STATUS: Married with one child

EDUCATION:

1991: Law (LLB) London School of Economics

CAREER:

1994 -1995: Barrister, 39 Essex Street Chambers

JAN1996 - SEPT 2001: Legal adviser at the Home Office

SEPT 2001-AUG 2003: In-house counsel at Liberty

SEPTEMBER 2003: Director of Liberty

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