Friday, February 17, 2006

Can we turn around?

The first thing that has to be said about the "glorification of terrorism" law is that it's appallingly ill-written legislation. Here it is, courtesy of 'Unity':
Encouragement of Terrorism

(1) A person commits an offence if—

(a) he publishes a statement or causes another to publish a statement on his behalf; and
(b) at the time he does so—
(i) he knows or believes, or
(ii) he has reasonable grounds for believing, that members of the public to whom the statement is or is to be published are likely to understand it as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences.

(2) For the purposes of this section the statements that are likely to be understood by members of the public as indirectly encouraging the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences include every statement which—

(a) glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts or offences; and
(b) is a statement from which those members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated in existing circumstances.

(3) For the purposes of this section the questions what it would be reasonable to believe about how members of the public will understand a statement and what they could reasonably be expected to infer from a statement must be determined having regard both—

(a) to the contents of the statement as a whole; and
(b) to the circumstances and manner in which it is or is to be published.

(4) It is irrelevant for the purposes of subsections (1) and (2)—

(a) whether the statement relates to the commission, preparation or instigation of one or more particular acts of terrorism or Convention offences, of acts of terrorism or Convention offences of a particular description or of acts of terrorism or Convention offences generally; and
(b) whether any person is in fact encouraged or induced by the statement to commit, prepare or instigate any such act or offence.
I can't be certain, but I think what's happening here is that 1 (b) (ii) is qualified by 2 (a) and (b). There's the bit about having 'reasonable grounds to believe' - a kind of 'shouting Terror in a crowded theatre' clause; then there are criteria for the kind of statement which, the government believes, would give somebody reasonable grounds, etc. These criteria are twofold: you have to (a) glorify something which (b) could be emulated. The whole is then dunked in a bath of circumstantial vagueness with 3 (a) and (b) and 4 (a): following these clauses, we could reasonably see a scholarly discussion of the case for assassinating Charles Clarke go unpunished while vague but inflammatory sloganeering is punished as encouraging terrorism. Of course, in many cases vague but inflammatory sloganeering could have been punished anyway - but not reliably, and (crucially) not as terrorism. The importance of the 'terrorism' label is underlined by the reference to "Convention offences": a weird ragbag of offences, defined (or at least enumerated) here: explosives offences, hijacking, kidnapping and so forth. These are offences incorporated into British law in compliance with international (generally UN) conventions - hence the name. The offences enumerated appear already to be crimes in English and Scottish law; the effect of the 'Convention offences' labelling is to group them under the same heading as terrorist offences.

Executive summary of the new clauses: if you say anything that we think is liable to persuade other people that what we call terrorism isn't as bad as we say it is, then you're more or less a terrorist yourself - and, more to the point, you're nicked.

As for what it is that our government calls terrorism, here's the current legal definition:
1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.
Let's unscramble that. (Anyone else reminded of that Robert Heinlein story where the kid is given an insanely complicated task as part of an aptitude test, and gets full marks for telling the examiner it's logically impossible?)

Terrorism equals: serious violence
or serious damage to property
or endangering life
or endangering the health or safety of 'a section of the public'
or serious disruption of 'an electronic system'
(OR threatening any of the above)
when the action involves a political, ideological or religious cause
and EITHER is intended to intimidate people or influence the government
OR involves the use of guns or explosives.

Got that? Simplifying slightly and stripping away weasel words like 'serious', the definition of terrorism we're left with is:

an organised political group hurting people, smashing things up or hacking systems - or threatening to hurt people, smash things up or hack systems - for political goals. (Or using guns or explosives, for any reason - that's right out.)

So, statements glorifying terrorism are any statements about terrorism that the government chooses to designate as such; and terrorism is any violent, disruptive or threatening political activity which the government chooses to designate as such.

As I wrote back here, this is not really about security; a government that was primarily concerned with threats to public safety would go about things a lot more quietly. This is a profoundly political strategy, which seems to be calculated to divide and demobilise (in the first instance) the Muslim community, seen as a potential source of opposition to the government. How better to divide a group against itself than by letting it be known that most members of the group are decent, law-abiding British citizens, but some are scheming alien terrorists who ought to be rounded up?

Blair:
He said: "The new law will mean that if people are going to start celebrating acts of terrorism or condoning people who engage in terrorism, they will be prosecuted, and if they do not come from this country, they should not be in this country. We have free speech in this country, but you cannot abuse it."

He said yesterday's vote represented a vital signal of strength "in circumstances where the threat is not just from the individual acts of terrorism, but the people who try to entice other people or recruit other people into doing it".
Those people, they're the ones we need to deal with. Not you, obviously, but... well, you know. Them. You know the ones. You wouldn't happen to have anything you could tell us about them, would you? No? Not to worry. Mind how you go.

Update Shortly after writing the above paragraph, I read this. (Incidentally, the legality of Riz Ahmed's detention seems extremely debatable. Schedule 7 of TACT(2000) would legitimise detention in the circumstances Riz describes, but only for the purpose of establishing whether or not he was a terrorist.)
Under the threat of “prolonging” my detention, I cooperated in allowing her to go through my wallet. She took detailed notes on all its contents. All of my bankcard details were noted down, as were the details on other people’s business cards I had in my wallet.
...
While searching through my wallet she asked me whether I intended to do more documentary films, specifically more political ones like The Road to Guantanamo. She asked “Did you become an actor mainly to do films like this, you know, to publicise the struggles of Muslims?”. She also asked me what my political views were, what I thought about “the Iraq war and everything else that was going on”, whether the Iraq war was “right” in my view.

She then asked me whether I would mind officers contacting me regularly in the future, “in case, for example, you might be in a café, and you overhear someone discussing illegal activities”.
You really can't make it up.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Dave Hansell said...

I have a question:

Paragraph 1.(ii) (Encouragement of Terrorism) talks about;

" direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism or CONVENTION offences."

To what Convention does this refer?

Is it some international convention relating to terrorism?

In which case what legal definitions of the term "terrorism" does such a Convention contain and do they differ in any way from the UK Governments definition?

18/2/06 10:46  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

"(2) Action falls within this subsection if it...

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property..."

Presumably this means, since the risk to life clause includes a proviso that it has to be to other people, that the serious violence could be against oneself, and the serious damage to property could be to my own property. Burning all my fur coats, if I had any, as a statement against the fur trade, could thus presumably be an act of terrorism.

18/2/06 16:10  
Blogger Phil said...

Dave - I assumed that the 'Convention' in question was some international agreement, but apparently not - the sense seems to be "offences which can be regarded by convention as terrorist". More in the (updated) post.

19/2/06 00:17  
Blogger Alex said...

I think you'll find it does indeed refer to the UN Convention against Terrorism and a whole bunch of others regarding specifics, mostly drafted in the 1970s regarding airline hijacking.

20/2/06 09:51  
Blogger Phil said...

Alex - that makes a lot more sense, but: which Convention against Terrorism? The Comprehensive ditto hasn't been agreed yet, let alone ratified. I'm not finding much about this on gov.uk sites.

20/2/06 12:07  
Blogger Chris Lightfoot said...

It's in s.20 (interpretation):
'"Convention offence" means an offence listed in Schedule 1 or an equivalent offence under the law of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom'

21/2/06 09:30  

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