Alarm bells should be ringing

Related Topics
WHEN THE Gulf War started in January 1991, 91 Iraqis and Palestinians were arrested and threatened with deportation from this country on the grounds that their presence was "not conducive to the public good". They were not, however, individuals funded by the Iraqi government; on the contrary, many were dissidents passionately opposed to Saddam Hussein. So why were they rounded up? The answer lies in an infamous list, drawn up by MI5 and Special Branch, which purported to name suspected "terrorists" of Middle Eastern extraction.

Among those detained was the Palestinian writer and academic Abbas Shiblak, who had lived in Britain for many years and was well-known - to everyone but the police and the Security Services - as a moderate. Mr Shiblak was freed after two weeks of internment, followed a week later by an Iraqi student who managed to persuade officials they had got the wrong man. Displaying the traditional English dyslexia about foreign names, the Security Services had mixed him up with someone else - someone who was probably as innocent as the rest of the unfortunates.

This was confirmed in March 1991 when the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, announced there would be no deportations and no trials as a result of the round-up. Indeed, Mr Baker was said to have been shocked by the flimsy, anecdotal evidence used to compile the list and later ordered an inquiry into what many observers regarded as a scandalous abuse of human rights. The Home Office recognised that some of the Iraqi students whom MI5 and Special Branch had fingered were genuine refugees.

What this demonstrates is that, when it comes to identifying terrorists in this country, relying on "intelligence" gathered by MI5 and Special Branch is about as effective as picking foreign-sounding names from the telephone directory. (Irish accents are similarly popular with the police, as the Birmingham Six discovered.) Not that the Security Services learnt much from their dismal performance in 1991. In February this year, when air strikes against Iraq once again looked imminent, they were apparently ready with another list of potential detainees - until the Government squashed the idea.

In the wake of the Omagh bombing, and the terrorist attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, all this is in danger of being forgotten. Last week, in an emotional speech in Northern Ireland, Tony Blair announced a package of anti-terrorist measures the centrepiece of which is the relaxation of the rules of evidence in the province. Once the new law is rushed through Parliament on Wednesday and Thursday, it will be possible to convict suspects of belonging to a proscribed organisation solely on the word of a senior police officer. This is not strictly internment but it carries the same risks, of honest mistakes and malicious identifications, which are credited with having recruited so many new members to the IRA in the 1970s. The law is aimed at the Real IRA, but there is nothing to stop it being used against members of other political organisations in future. Panic measures, hurried on to the statute books in a matter of days, remain in force for decades, available to governments of a quite different stripe from the one that originally proposed them. As a separate part of the same package, it will become an offence to conspire to commit criminal offences abroad, a measure which Liberty described last week as "a serious threat to human rights".

Conspiracy trials rarely turn on hard evidence, for the simple reason that people who intend to commit criminal acts infrequently document their intentions on paper. Convictions tend to depend on circumstantial evidence, such as membership of political organisations - not quite the same as being put on trial for your politics, but it comes close. It will even be an offence, according to some reports, to collect funds for a terrorist organisation abroad - and who is to define "terrorist" in this context, other than our old friends the Security Services and Special Branch?

I know it's the end of August, that many MPs are still on holiday and that newspapers are full of tomorrow's anniversary of the death of the Princess of Wales. But I'm astonished by the muted response to Mr Blair's announcement of such undemocratic and ineffectual measures - ineffectual because they do not address the causes of terrorism, only its results. They are also likely to convert moderates, Irish Republicans and Islamists alike, into vengeful extremists. Mr Blair appeared close to tears when he visited Omagh on Tuesday. You do not have to doubt his sincerity to suggest that he has made a serious error of judgement. But this country's record of imprisoning the wrong people is bad enough, without making it worse in the heated atmosphere that follows terrorist atrocities like Omagh.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea