Conference will demand action over human rights in Scotland

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
18 April 2007

As the Holyrood elections approach, human rights group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities is holding a conference in Glasgow with the theme "Rights and Resistance." The conference will draw attention to the continuing complicity of the authorities in Britain and Scotland in human rights abuses around the world and on our own doorstep in Scotland. The conference is expected to call for MSPs of all parties to be proactive in ending these abuses, and to call on grassroots and community groups to stand up in defence of basic rights and freedoms.

The all-day conference is being held at the offices of the STUC in Glasgow on Saturday 21 April. Speakers include human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar; asylum campaigner Emma Ginn (the coordinator for the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns for Manchester and North-West England), Margaret Woods from the Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees and representatives of the anti-war and trade union movements.

The Rights and Resistance conference will also be hosting the launch meeting of Media Workers Against the War (Scotland).

Background

More than two years since it become public knowledge that aircraft linked to "extraordinary rendition" were using Scottish airports, there has still been no official investigation into the matter and our airports remain open to this kind of abuse.

In the meantime, Glasgow airport has earned a national reputation as a travellers' blackspot because of the intrusive and aggressive questioning of Muslims – many of them British citizens – arriving there. Police at Glasgow airport are stretching to breaking point the extraordinary powers granted to them under the Terrorism Act 2000, which makes it a criminal offence for anyone arriving at a port or airport to refuse to answer questions.

Asylum-seekers in Scotland continue to live under conditions that, for them, amount to a police state. Applications for asylum are routinely refused on arbitrary and whimsical grounds. Protests and acts of solidarity by asylum-seekers and their friends and neighbours have somewhat lessened the threat from dawn raids over recent months. But asylum-seekers are still at risk of this kind of legally-sanctioned attack on their homes. When they go to sign on at the Home Office in Glasgow’s Brand Street they are apt to be detained without warning and whisked away to be put on a plane before their lawyers can take action on their behalf. And it’s set to get worse. Phil Taylor, the Scottish regional director of the new Border and Immigration Agency said earlier this month that the rate of removals is to increase.

The Home Office has launched a review of 1100 asylum seeking families living in Scotland whose claims have been rejected and says that it will take into account length of time in the UK, and evidence of integration. The review is giving hope to these families, but it falls a long way short of the hoped-for amnesty. Disturbingly, these families are being described as "legacy cases." Their presence in Scotland isn’t a legacy. It’s the result of the ongoing abuse of human rights around the world.

Some of the catastrophes that create refugees are the direct result of actions by the British government. According to the UNHCR, two million refugees have already left Iraq as a result of the conflict created by the Anglo-American invasion, and a further hundred thousand are leaving every month. Another 1.9 million are displaced within Iraq.

In Britain, the "war on terror" has created a climate in which people can find themselves in court for "offences" that are entirely political. The Terrorism Act 2000 introduced a new, wide-ranging definition of terrorism that criminalises most of the kinds of action needed to challenge a despotic regime, wherever in the world they are carried out, and criminalises people in Britain who show support for liberation struggles overseas. Until recently, police and prosecutors in Britain have shied away from coming to court with cases that hinge on this controversial definition. But in February this year the Court of Appeal backed a ruling by a High Court judge in Woolwich that upheld a wide interpretation of the Terrorism Act in a case involving a Libyan dissident. The judge - Mr Justice Mackay – had ruled that the defendant could not plan, from England, the overthrow of Gaddafi: all he and other Libyan exiles could do was to urge the UK Government to take action to invade or otherwise attack the regime.

According to Sejal Parmar of Doughty Street Chambers (who represent the Libyan dissident) the ruling will "chill the work of NGOs actively opposing oppressive regimes from North Korea and Iran to Zimbabwe and would endanger those who supply funds for freedom fighters opposed to Burmese generals or the Fijian military junta." Sejal Parmar says it follows from the ruling that "all governments, no matter how heinous their human rights record, can have their UK opponents jailed for lengthy periods under the Government's Terrorism Act 2000."

The definition of terrorism in British law has been the subject of a report by Lord Carlile, the government-appointed reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation, whose findings were released in March. He says that the controversial current definition is "useful and broadly fit for purpose".

In preparing his report, Lord Carlile obtained written submissions from a variety of individuals and organisations and took a roadshow around the country to gather oral evidence. Much of the written and oral evidence expressed grave concerns or outright opposition to the current definition of terrorism. The roadshow visited Glasgow last July. All of the people attending it - including police officers - were critical of the current legislation. None of this is mentioned in Lord Carlile's report.

Lord Carlile has said on a number of occasions that fears of inappropriate prosecutions under this legislation were exaggerated, because prosecutors would use the discretion given them under the Terrorism Act. In other words, the law is to be enforced selectively. If unelected prosecutors are to possess this kind of political discretion, it is essential that our elected representatives at Holyrood and Westminster exert themselves to ensure that it is used in line with the values of the Scottish people.

In Tayside, extraordinary and tendentious powers of political discretion have been grabbed by a Special Branch Community Contact Unit – unique in Scotland – that is engaged in monitoring minority ethnic communities for anything it regards as a sign of extremism. The Unit has focussed particular attention on universities and its officers have even visited secondary schools in the area. The Unit has reined in its activities somewhat following protests by university students of all communities, but it is continuing to gather "intelligence" on Dundee’s minorities, and especially on Muslims. Tayside police refuse to say how much "intelligence" they have gathered.

The erosion of basic human rights and freedoms across our country would have seemed incredible just a few years ago. It could certainly never have been imagined when the Scottish Parliament was created with a responsibility for human rights that seemed to shine a new light into Britain’s musty constitutional arrangements. The defence of human rights against the current background of global thuggery will need determined action from people around the world. Everyone seeking election to Holyrood must make it plain that they will be part of this process. Whether they support Scottish independence or oppose it, election candidates must commit themselves to defending our rights with every ounce of political muscle and moral force that the Scottish Parliament possesses.