First ruling on terrorism

Statement from Doughty Street Chambers, 16 January 2007
First ruling on 'terrorism'

A High Court judge has delivered the first decision on the meaning of 'terrorism' in the government's new anti-terrorist legislation. He has ruled that it includes assistance for regime change irrespective of the nature of the regime. In consequence, it will be a serious crime to provide assistance to liberation groups and freedom fighters seeking to overthrow tyrannies and military juntas. The judge ruled that terrorism involves a threat of violence or property damage against any government in the world no matter how undemocratic or oppressive. He also decided that there can be no defence for those who work in the United Kingdom to bring down tyrannies abroad by threatening violent action. It follows 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 ruling was delivered at Woolwich Crown Court on 25th January 2007 by Mr Justice Mackay in a case, styled R v F, which involved a Libyan dissident who is being prosecuted for possession of a document 'likely to be useful to a terrorist', namely a blueprint for setting up an underground organisation in Libya to oppose its dictator, Colonel Gaddafi. There is no lawful way in which an overground opposition can be established in that country. Mr Justice Mackay 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. This ruling would apply to 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 Figian military junta. It would have applied to prohibit much of the support given from the UK in the past to the ANC and the Kurds.

Mr Justice Mackay said that he was conscious his ruling was the first test of what he accepted to be the cornerstone of the Government's anti-terrorism laws and he gave leave to appeal. An expedited hearing is expected to take place in the Court of Appeal on 5th February 2007. The defendant is represented by Geoffrey Robertson QC and Azeem Suterwalla of Doughty Street Chambers, who have argued that the protection given to foreign 'governments' by the Act's definition of 'terrorism' relates only to those governments which are representative or elected (as provided for by Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights) and does not apply to tyrannies, military juntas or absolute monarchies.

Mr Justice Mackay's decision confirms the fears of many speakers at the time of parliamentary debates over the Act who claimed that it could be used against opponents of oppressive regimes. Their objections were brushed aside by the Government's spokesmen - Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and Lord Bassam - on the grounds that the Human Rights Act would provide ample protection. This ruling, unless overturned, will demonstrate that these assurances were empty.

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