Anti-terrorism laws: unjust powers serving the politics of fear

Statement from the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (2008), with minor updates by SACC (July 2010)

Do anti-terror laws make us safer? Whom do they protect?

Since 2000 several ‘anti-terror' laws have been officially justified as necessary to protect us from global threats to our lives. Yet these laws have political aims and consequences.

Anti-terror powers:

  • define terrorism more broadly, thus blurring any distinction between anti-government protest and organized violence against civilians;
  • label numerous organisations as ‘terrorist', as a basis for placing entire communities under suspicion of associating with ‘terrorism';
  • use ‘intelligence' obtained by torturing detainees abroad;
  • and detain and prosecute people for suspected activities which could just as well be handled under other laws.

These powers cast a wide net for treating more and more people as ‘terror suspects.' Antiterror powers foster a racist culture of suspicion towards migrants and Muslims, treating them as suspect communities. This politics of fear helps to intimidate dissent and so shield the government's foreign policies from criticism and protest.

The Terrorism Act 2000 underpins all subsequent anti-terror laws. It defines terrorism to include simply 'the threat' of 'serious damage to property', in ways 'designed to influence the government' for a 'political cause' anywhere in the world. This broad definition stigmatizes a wide range of legitimate political activity as 'terrorism'. Organizations could be banned on the basis that their activities in other countries fit the broad definition of terrorism. Since the Home Office banned more than forty organizations under the Terrorism Act 2000, free speech has been attacked and political activists have been prosecuted.

Under the Section 44 of the 2000 Act, police gained powers to impose stop-and-search on an arbitrary basis, without any grounds for suspicion about an individual. These powers have been widely used to harass political activists. The Government announced the suspension of these powers in July 2010, following a ruling by the European Court of human rights that section 44 violates the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights.

Under the 2000 Act the Police also gained powers to detain ‘terror suspects' without charge for 7 days. This was later extended to 14 days, and then to 28 days in 2005. Such long detentions impose punishment without trial, psychological pressure on ‘suspects', and damage to their livelihoods.

After the 11 September attacks, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) 2001 granted further powers of detention and surveillance. It even imposed duties on everyone to inform the authorities of any ‘suspected terrorist' activities. Charities faced extra restrictions: for example, Interpal had its bank account temporarily frozen, and political activists have been barred from serving as officers of charities.

The ATCSA 2001 also authorized the government to intern non-UK citizens suspected of links with a vaguely defined ‘international terrorism'. Several foreign nationals were detained for an indefinite period, in many cases based on ‘intelligence' from torture abroad. After a three-year protest campaign, the Law Lords declared this power illegal. The government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) 2005 authorising ‘control orders'; these keep individuals in their homes under curfew, restrict movements, and require clearance for any visitors. This system turns homes into domestic prisons. ‘Control orders' can be imposed on anyone in this country.

The PTA 2005 also criminalised any statements ‘glorifying terrorism', or possession of any item which ‘may be useful for terrorism'. Again these powers referred to the broad definition of terrorism from the 2000 law. Some ‘suspects' have been prosecuted simply for downloading documents from the internet, for possessing ‘radical' DVDs, for exploring websites, and for writing poems. These prosecutions intimidate dissent against the government's foreign policies.

Attacks on civil liberties are not simply a means but also a fundamental purpose of ‘anti-terror' laws. Ordinary criminal law provides more than adequate powers for the police to protect the public. Anti-terror laws help the state:

  • to isolate migrant communities and deter them from political protest against oppressive regimes abroad, especially those allied with the UK government.
  • to undermine struggles for national self-determination.
  • to obtain extensive access to information on political activities, as well as to harass them.

‘Anti-terror' laws contradict fundamental principles of justice - the presumption of innocence, habeas corpus and a fair trial by jury. They treat suspicion as guilt, impose punishment without trial, and allow arbitrary executive decisions. Such powers have been extended by the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008.

All these powers could be used even more extensively against any of us, bringing this country closer to a police state. Resistance and solidarity are essential to protect our rights.

More Information