Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders


Belmarsh prison

Imagine being picked up by the police, taken to a maximum security prison, and held for years –- indefinitely, for all you know –- without being told what it is that you’re supposed to have done. Sounds familiar? If you substitute “soldiers” for “the police,” it sounds like Guantánamo, or Bagram, or Abu Ghraib. But it’s not. It’s Belmarsh prison, in south east London.

Three years ago, in December 2004, after 17 men, captured and held as described above, had already been imprisoned in Belmarsh for at least three years without charge and without the prospect of a trial, Britain’s law lords ruled that this kind of detention was in breach of human rights law. In response, the government introduced a new form of detention without charge or trial. Under the control orders introduced in spring 2005, the eleven Belmarsh prisoners who were still in detention were allowed to return home, but were subjected to a range of measures which severely restricted their liberty.

In some obvious senses, this new regime was less brutal, although it was no less unjust. As the released Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg reported in yesterday’s Guardian, the control orders “consisted of a panoply of measures restricting the movement of the men as well as their ability to communicate with the outside world, and included home curfews, remaining within the confines of a specified radius, the approval of telephone calls, a ban on mobile phones, internet access and unauthorised visitors; the wearing of an electronic tracking tag, signing-in up to four times a day at a police station and calling security firms several times a day.” Noting that the impact of control orders on these men’s mental health, and on their wives and children, has often been “intolerable,” he added, “Though few have said it, ‘house arrest’ is the term that comes to mind.”

This was something of an understatement. If Belmarsh (where some of the original prisoners were once more incarcerated, after being rearrested following the London bombings in July 2005) was this government’s shameful reinvention of the reviled policy of internment, as practiced in Northern Ireland, to disastrous effect, in the 1970s and ‘80s, the control orders (which were subsequently extended to include British nationals and a new wave of uncharged undesirables) are indeed a form of house arrest.

On Wednesday, the law lords, having reviewed the control orders in the light of three separate challenges to their legality, delivered another verdict, which, unfortunately, was but a toothless shadow of the righteous indignation that they had unleashed on the government three years before. Tinkering with the system, they ruled, in the case of six Iraqis, that an 18-hour home curfew was in breach of the right to liberty, as guaranteed by the European convention on human rights, and, moreover, ruled that the system of secret evidence must be changed to let the suspects know the case against them, and to give them the right to a fair hearing (a verdict which should have been on the front pages of newspapers, although it was not). Noticeably, however, they failed to rule that the whole experiment was as vile and illegal as its predecessor, heaping shame upon England’s proud reputation as the home of habeas corpus.

Although the law lords argued that they were, in fact, upholding the suspects’ habeas rights by ruling against the government’s reliance on secret evidence and its insistence that it can restrict the liberty of these men without ever charging them (Lord Brown, memorably, said that the right to a fair hearing was “one of altogether too great importance to be sacrificed on the altar of terrorism control”), it remains apparent that, by refusing to condemn the control orders outright, they have perpetuated a brazenly draconian system, which appears, dangerously, to be fuelled by anti-Muslim vindictiveness, even though the more prosaic truth is that it is driven by an anachronistic refusal to “compromise the security services” by proceeding with trials using intercept evidence (despite the fact that most other western democracies have managed to do so without imperiling their “spooks”).

The importance of the dispute over the control orders’ legitimacy was clearly recognized by the lords. In addition to Lord Brown’s comments, Lord Hoffman declared, “Such is the revulsion against detention without charge or trial, such is this country’s attachment to habeas corpus, that the right to liberty ordinarily trumps even the interests of national security,” adding that such rights were simply “too precious to be sacrificed for any reason other than to safeguard the survival of the state.” As the Economist reported, however, “even he had doubts” as to whether the control orders “amounted to an unlawful deprivation of a fundamental human right or a simple restriction upon [the suspects’] liberty. Whereas continuous house arrest was clearly equivalent to imprisonment or detention, he was not so sure about the imposition of an 18-hour curfew. There was, he suggested, no clear dividing line between what was acceptable and what was not.”

Lords Hoffman and Brown and their colleagues are to be congratulated for insisting, as the Economist described it, “on a suspect’s right to see the key evidence against him, even if disclosing it is deemed contrary to national security interests,” but in their dithering over the bigger picture they have overlooked one crucial fact, established with alarming clarity over the last six years: that allowing governments to imprison people without charge –- even if theoretically justifiable, in a few extraordinary cases –- relies upon a stout belief that the government’s “secret evidence” is reliable.

Time and again, however, the intelligence services have been shown to be woefully lacking in reliable evidence. Of the 30 control order cases introduced in the last two and a half years, seven have been dismissed on appeal, and credible doubts have been expressed about the nature of the secret evidence against many of the others. In April 2005, for example, the Home Office was forced to apologize to ten of the men under control orders after what it described as a “clerical error,” which resulted in letters being sent to them stating, incorrectly, that the basis for their detention was their alleged involvement in the so-called ricin plot (the spectral plot that evaporated after a high-profile trial in 2004-05), and in January 2005 an extraordinary list of intelligence blunders relating to the Belmarsh prisoners was published in the Independent.

In an article entitled, “Belmarsh detainees: Flawed intelligence exposes scandal,” Robert Verkaik, the Independent’s legal affairs correspondent, noted, amongst other errors, that “A security service assessment was embarrassingly withdrawn after it emerged that the purpose behind a visit to Dorset by a group of Muslim men had not been to elect a terrorist leader but to get away from their wives for the weekend,” that “The Home Secretary has been forced to concede that some of the funds raised by the detainee Abu Rideh for alleged terrorist activity were sent to orphanages in Afghanistan run by a Canadian priest,” that “Two of the detainees were awarded compensation for false arrest shortly before they were detained under the anti-terrorist emergency powers,” and that “Testimony against two of the detainees came from an affidavit sworn by a man who was offered a lenient sentence in return for evidence.” In conclusion, Verkaik observed, justifiably, that, although these mistakes were based on the “open” evidence against the suspects, “the inaccuracy of some of these assertions raises questions about the reliability of the secret evidence that the detainees have never been allowed to see.”

As Guantánamo and the secret prison network run by the Americans have shown (and as I describe in detail in my newly released book The Guantánamo Files), allowing the intelligence services to operate without any legal oversight, and resorting to secret evidence, which may be based on torture, coercion or hearsay, is no way to ensure that justice is served. The fog of secrecy surrounding Belmarsh and the control order suspects is no less damaging. The law lords took one step in the right direction on Wednesday, but house arrest, however, mitigated, still has no place in a civilized society. If there is a case to be made against any of these men, it should, as with the “enemy combatants” held by the US administration, take place in a courtroom.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on CounterPunch and Indymedia.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportation and extradition, see Deals with dictators undermined by British request for return of five Guantánamo detainees (August 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: the troubling tale of Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), Britain’s Guantánamo: control orders renewed, as one suspect is freed (February 2008), Spanish drop “inhuman” extradition request for Guantánamo Britons (March 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), Repatriation as Russian Roulette: Will the Two Algerians Freed from Guantánamo Be Treated Fairly? (July 2008), Abu Qatada: Law Lords and Government Endorse Torture (February 2009), Ex-Guantánamo prisoner refused entry into UK, held in deportation centre (February 2009), Home Secretary ignores Court decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprisons them in Belmarsh (February 2009), Britain’s insane secret terror evidence (March 2009).

6 Responses

  1. yazli » Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on … says...

    […] full story here […]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    After this article was published, I received the following reply from the indefatigable Ann Alexander. I’ll be following up on the stories soon, but I think they demonstrate with appalling clarity the lamentable flight from justice, on the part of the British government, that I highlighted in my article.

    Ann wrote:

    Thanks, Andy, for another excellent article. On the afternoon of the decision by the Law Lords, while the Home Secretary was saying to the media that she might consider 16-hour curfews, my young Iraqi friend (NN), was served with new control orders. His time outside was reduced from 8am/6pm to 9am/5pm (16 hour curfew). People, again, have to be vetted to visit his house and he can no longer make pre-arranged meetings. This control order is actually worse than the original served on him when he was released from Full Sutton prison in December 2005. As for some of the other Muslims under control orders, Mahmoud Abu Rideh is back in Belmarsh – held in Health Care – accused of breaching his control orders. He was not imprisoned for deportation in August 2005, as he is Palestinian. Another, “E” was not imprisoned for deportation, as he is Tunisian.

    Now that eight despairing men, who could not endure their inhumane treatment in the UK any longer, have returned to Algeria (two who were charged and go on trial in Nov 10th), it is worthy of note, that when the first two Algerians returned to Algeria, a Home Office statement claimed that this proved that control orders work! Two Algerians remain on the outside held on deportation bail (which tends to be referred to as control orders). They are only allowed out for two hours a day. One is “G” who is a married man with two children. G is wheelchair bound. He walked in to Belmarsh in December 2001 and left in a wheelchair weighing 7 stone. His mental health deteriorated and he was released under total house arrest for a year until the other men were released from Belmarsh in March 2005. He was then put on control orders. The other is “B” whose mental health totally collapsed in Belmarsh and his release in March 2005 was from Broadmoor – a hospital for the criminally insane. At that time Mahmoud was also detained in Broadmoor with “P” who returned to Algeria at the beginning of the year. David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, transferred these men to Broadmoor at a time when he now claims that he was also suffering a mental breakdown! Like David Blunkett, none of these men have been convicted of a crime and they are not insane but unlike David Blunkett, they are Muslims.

    G is a victim of torture. At least three of the men held in the unit at Full Sutton are also victims of torture. Mustapha Taleb (Algerian), Adel Bari (Egyptian) and Farid Hilali (Moroccan). Farid set a precedent recently by winning his fight against extradition to Spain but instead of being released he is still held in the Unit with another nine Muslims.

    I don’t know any of the British nationals under control orders but I am sure their control orders are not as restrictive as the others.

    Thanks again for your well researched article, Andy. I am on chapter 8 of your book – The Guantánamo Files – and it makes me reflect on the situation of my Muslim friends detained without charge or trial in the UK. All power to your pen.

    Best wishes,
    Ann Alexander

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    And the following:

    Dear Andy,
    Have just read your article and want to congratulate you on it. I have been to Walsall six times in the last year to visit one of the Kurds under control order. A less likely terrorist you are unlikely to meet! He had until this ruling house arrest of 14 hours a day, being allowed out from 8 till 6, and his visitors did not need to be vetted. Also, he was allowed to make arrangements to meet people. Since the ruling, his house arrest has been increased to 16 hours a day, any visitors must go through Home Office vetting, which can take months, and he is not allowed to make any arrangement to meet anybody. I thought you may be interested to know this. I always appreciate your articles. My friend Ann Alexander made sure I didn’t miss this one. She may have told you already what I just have.
    My best wishes to you. I will most definitely be buying your book.
    Wish there were more people like you!
    Eleanor Boyd

  4. Sophie Harkat says...


    I was wondering where I could get a copy of this book ? My husband was detained in Ottawa, Canada for 43 months (on a Security Certificate) without charge or access to the evidence and now lives under the thoughest bail conditions in Canadian history for 1.5 years. He was arrrested on Dec. 10th (Human Rights Day) in 2002…so this nightmare has lasted 5 years so far. I have become his jailer and I’m a prisoner in my own home. He wears a GPS bracelet, and I have to supervise him 24/7…so I cannot work or campaign/lobby like before. Life has been hard. After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Security Certificates were unconstitutional…our Conservative governement has come up with a new version of the law which is horrifying. It’s a worst version of the British model of Special Advocate. I have been updated regularly by my friend Ann Alexander who’s friends are also Algerian like my husband. Please keep me posted or let me know where I can get a copy.
    For more info. for similar cases in Canada
    All the best,
    Sophie Harkat
    Ottawa, Canada

  5. A UN Report on the Nativity?, Patrick Corrigan – Politics Unlimited | UK politics news says...

    […] search at their point of entry under sweeping anti-terrorism powers and may have been placed under Control Order restrictions at the behest of the Home […]

  6. Britain’s Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction? by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Tunisian Belmarsh detainee Hedi Boudhiba, extradited, cleared and abandoned in Spain (August 2007), Guantánamo as house arrest: Britain’s law lords capitulate on control orders (November 2007), The Guantánamo Britons and Spain’s dubious extradition request (December 2007), […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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