Leading article: The unpleasant reality of detention

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The Independent Online

There is much to be learnt from the experiences of Rupert and Linda Wise, the unfortunate British couple who were released yesterday from detention in Iran. For one thing, this affair tells us a little about the new Iranian regime. The Iranian Information Ministry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the judiciary in Tehran all became involved in questioning the couple, after their arrest for sailing into restricted waters in the Persian Gulf. This is a useful snapshot of where power lies in Iran.

But the affair ought to prompt some reflection from the Prime Minister and his Government on matters closer to home. How ironic that the Wises' 14-day detention without charge is regarded as unacceptable by the very Government that has been attempting this week to legislate for a 90-day period of detention for terror suspects in Britain.

The release of the Wises has been presented as a triumph for British diplomacy. But it is worth asking how we would have reacted if the boot had been on the other foot. If a couple of Iranian nationals were being held without charge in Britain on suspicion of terrorism while a police investigation got under way, would we consider it appropriate for the Iranian embassy to lobby the Home Secretary for their swift release?

The Wises' experience is instructive in a more profound way too. The couple have made no claims of mistreatment at the hands of the Iranian authorities. But Mr Wise describes being held without charge as "mental torture". For two weeks they had no idea what would happen to them. How much worse would this fear - and subsequent resentment - be in someone detained for 90 days?

There is a distasteful aspect to some of the arguments that have been deployed in favour of a tougher detention policy. There is an unspoken assumption that only a small number of undesirables will be affected - and not, for example, the sort of white, middle-class couple who go on yachting holidays. This is the danger.

Any new power granted to the state must be scrutinised on the basis that it could be used against any one of us. Yesterday's outraged reaction to the unpleasant experience of the Wise family suggests that popular enthusiasm for the principle of 90-day - or even 28-day - detention without charge is not as great as the Prime Minister believes it to be.

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