Ex-colonies use British legacy to stifle dissent

The Empire's apparatus of oppression is still in place - and in action
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WHAT do the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin, the Kenyan dissident Koigi wa Wamwere, innumerable Palestinians and the Governor of Hong Kong have in common?

They have all discovered how many draconian powers Britain has bequeathed to its former colonies.

The rule of law, Westminster-style democracy and strict standards in public life are often seen as among the important legacies of the British Empire. But across the world regulations drawn up by past colonial administrators are still being used, sometimes decades after independence, to prosecute government opponents, detain them without trial, prohibit demonstrations and shut down newspapers.

Earlier this month Koigi wa Wamwere called for a repeal of Kenyan colonial- era laws, which he said were used to block democracy. The former MP, who faces the death sentence if he is found guilty of taking part in an armed raid on a police station in 1993, said vague statutes such as the Chiefs' Authority Act and the Public Order Act allowed the government to define what constituted a threat to state security and public order. "Government should not use the law to punish critics," he said.

In Palestine as in Kenya, Britain drew up emergency laws which were made all the more drastic by the intensity of the independence struggle. The system of administrative detentions created in the 1940s is still routinely used in Israel's occupied territories. "Israel has two systems of law - one for Israelis and one for the Palestinians. The latter is based on the British emergency regulations," said one expert. "This is felt to lend it respectability."

Although many governments have extended the powers they inherited, the framework of laws governing security, public order and the declaration of a state of emergency remains recognisably British in most of the 51 Commonwealth nations. Peter Slinn, a constitutional lawyer at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, said independence constitutions nearly always preserved all existing laws and ordinances, no matter how arbitrarily they had come into existence.

"It is very popular in certain circles to say the former colonies were all given democracy and turned into dictatorships," said Dr Slinn, "but colonial administrations were very authoritarian, with no check on their powers apart from rather tenuous legislative supervision at home." When Lord Soames was sent to Zimbabwe in December 1979 to prepare the country for independence, his first act was to legitimise all the laws passed by the rebel Smith regime, including the notorious Law and Order Maintenance Act. Since independence the same law has been used by President Robert Mugabe against his opponents.

In Zambia, a state of emergency was declared shortly before independence in 1964. It remained in force for another 27 years as Kenneth Kaunda used his inherited powers to suppress opposition. When he finally held an election, he lost.

Because of its historical role, Britain has been at a disadvantage when complaining about human rights abuses in many parts of the world. Indira Gandhi was quick to point out that the powers she used to declare emergency rule in India in 1975 dated from the Raj. When Ms Nasrin's attacks on hidebound Islamic society outraged Muslim fundamentalists, the Bangladeshi government charged her under a colonial-era law with "offending religious feelings".

In Pakistan, the authorities have made virtually no changes to the administrative system set up by the British to deal with the wild tribes of the North- west frontier. Instead of attempting to impose an alien legal system on the tribesmen, the Raj gave local officials almost unlimited discretionary powers. These remain in force, as a Pakistani journalist discovered a couple of years ago. A local district commissioner jailed him under a regulation entitling him to hold a suspect for life. It took a political uproar in Islamabad before the government ordered the journalist's release.

Peter Lyon, of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at London University, said that although Malaysia and Singapore were vociferous in keeping Western values at bay, both countries had made extensive use of the more authoritarian side of their colonial legacy, in the form of emergency powers.

"Once a former colony becomes independent," said Dr Lyon, "it is up to the state how much to preserve. It is no longer convincing to blame the former colonial power for abuses."

In Hong Kong, with less than two years to go before the handover to China, Chris Patten's administration is hastily scrapping potentially oppressive legislation. Emergency regulations brought in during the riots of the 1960s are to be abolished, along with about 30 other laws. The Chinese want the colony to preserve its all-encompassing Official Secrets Act, but it is being replaced with a more liberal information regime.

Hong Kong's statute book will remain full of loopholes which could be exploited by the Chinese, according to one liberal critic. While petty restrictions on demonstrations have been lifted, permission is still required to hold large protests, "and the largest demonstrations in Hong Kong in recent years have been to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre". Britain is also refusing to touch the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which has powers to intercept mail and telephone calls, stage raids and hold suspects for longer than other agencies. "Just imagine what the Chinese could do with it," said the critic.

"Hong Kong people trust the British to be fair, despite all kinds of draconian statutes on the books. They don't trust the Chinese to behave the same way."

When Britain lost the will to enforce authoritarian coloniallaws, the age of Empire came to an end. Unhappily for its former subjects, many of its successors seem determined to keep its worst aspects alive.