Paul Donovan: The secret trials that besmirch Britain's immigration law

It is on this conveyor belt of injustice that the seven Pakistani students start today

Today the latest session of Britain's secret trials begins at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) in London. The appellants coming up before the SIAC over the next week are seven of the Pakistani students arrested before Easter under suspicion of terrorist activity.

There was blanket media coverage at the time, helped by the intervention of the Prime Minister, who felt the need to declare: "We are dealing with a very big terrorist plot."

Two weeks later all 12 students originally arrested were released without charge to far less fanfare. It was then announced that 10 were to be deported on national security grounds.

One returned to Pakistan while two others were released last week, pending visa issues being investigated. The remaining seven, however, now face Britain's secret system of justice overseen by the SIAC and operating under the aegis of immigration law.

The SIAC deals with appeals against decisions made by the Home Office to deport or exclude individuals from Britain on national security grounds. The process has all the appearance of a court, but operates more like a star chamber.

Secret evidence plays a big role in the process, with the appellants not told what they are accused of to justify their deportation. Neither are their lawyers allowed to know this information. Instead special advocates are appointed, who are allowed to see the evidence against them.

A damning indictment of the process comes from Dinah Rose QC, who acted as a special advocate. "I heard the appellant ask the judge the question: 'Why are you sending me to prison?' To which the judge replied: 'I cannot tell you that.' I could not believe that I was witnessing such an event in a British court. I could not believe that nobody protested or made a fuss. They simply took him to jail, without any explanation at all," said Rose.

This system of justice overseen by the SIAC has come to prominence since 9/11, when the Government turned to immigration law as a means of holding foreign nationals without trial, pending deportation. Following 9/11, the Government rushed through the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act, which allowed foreign nationals to be detained without trial indefinitely.

In 2004, the law lords ruled that it was unlawful under the Human Rights Act to detain people without trial. It was as a result of this ruling that control orders were devised.

These effectively amounted to being detained under house arrest. There were short periods of time when the individual could go outside into a proscribed area. They were also required to wear a tag and ring up the tagging company a number of times a day.

One of those originally detained under this process in December 2001 was an Algerian man known only as "G". He was imprisoned, then released on house arrest-style bail conditions then re-arrested after the London bombings, and served with a deportation notice. While in prison he then tried to kill himself using wire.

Today, "G" continues to live with his wife and two young children under house arrest conditions on deportation bail. "No one here has ever told me what I am accused of. I have no rights here it seems. In Britain animals have rights. I have less rights than an animal," he said.

It is onto this conveyor belt of injustice that the seven Pakistani students enter today. The one way out of this nightmare is to agree to leave the country. This, though, is not an option for most who fled their home countries like Algeria as refugees in fear of their lives. Were they to return, as some have, they would be likely to face torture, prison or death.

The Pakistani students case is somewhat different to that of the others being detained in that they did not flee their home country. However, it is not an appetising prospect to return to Pakistan under the cloud of terrorist suspicion. To their credit the students remain committed to resuming their studies in the UK.

There have been some encouraging signs of progress in the effort to roll back the operation of this secretive system of injustice. Last month, the law lords ruled that control orders breached the Human Rights Act in that the reliance on secret evidence denied the appellants a fair trial.

Meanwhile, some 90 MPs have signed an early day motion calling for an end to the use of secret evidence.

In the case of the students, the government may just be about to score a PR own goal. It created such a public fuss around the initial arrests, only to then declare no charges were being brought.

As a result there is sure to be more interest about the plight of the students as they enter the SIAC process. It can only be hoped that, come the end of this week, a little more light has been shed on this secret system of justice. It must also be hoped that all those students who want to can resume the studies that were so brutally interrupted back in April.