Letter: Britain treats heroes of free speech like criminals

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Sir: Ann Widdecombe is economical with the truth. Not for the first time in recent days, the minister misleads the public about the nature of the Home Office's policy of detaining asylum-seekers.

The prohibition - by which the UK is bound under international law - on arbitrary detention requires that all detention be promptly reviewed, by an independent and impartial authority. Whatever Ms Widdecombe may claim, decisions to detain are taken by junior immigration officials ("chief immigration officer" may sound grand, but the numerous CIOs are junior officials nonetheless), and are not subject to any automatic review independent of the Immigration Service itself.

Ms Widdecombe contends that "all detainees are told the reason for their detention". The reality is that immigration officials simply state (orally, never in writing) that "I am detaining you because I am not satisfied that you will comply with the terms of temporary admission".

While there is indeed a right to apply for bail, the bail mechanism is different from that in criminal cases and is ineffective in practice. There is no legal aid to cover a bail application, which necessitates finding a lawyer willing to work pro bono. There is no presumption in favour of liberty (as provided for in criminal cases under the 1976 Bail Act). This places the onus on the detainee to demonstrate why he or she should be released, rather than on the authorities to justify continued detention. Finally, the immigration adjudicators who hear bail applications have a convention of requiring large sums of money as bail guarantees. The vast majority of detainees - over 85 per cent - never get a bail hearing. Furthermore, the habeas corpus and judicial review mechanisms are of negligible value in all but the most exceptional cases.

RICHARD DUNSTAN

Refugee Officer

Amnesty International

London EC1

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