The coalition would remove a right to fair and transparent jury trial that is more important than the one to vote. Petrifying moves. Owen Jones writes: “The Daily Mail and the left don’t often find themselves on the same side, but when they do it is worth paying attention. The Daily Mail is absolutely right (not a sentence you will catch me typing on a regular basis) to splash on “Britain’s first secret trial“. It’s an affront to basic principles of justice, and a frightening precedent to boot. At risk of sounding like a Mail columnist myself: where will it end?
Two men, known only as AB and CD, have been charged with terrorism; journalists were forbidden from disclosing even this simple fact until newspapers overturned a gagging order. But for the first time in centuries – and in a direct challenge to the Magna Carta of 1215 – the entire trial will be held in secrecy.
A basic principle that democrats of all hues should surely champion is that justice is done, and is seen to be done. As Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti has put it: “Transparency isn’t an optional luxury in the justice system – it’s key to ensuring fairness and protecting the rule of law.” But it is the precedent that should disturb us. It isn’t one of the authoritarian anti-terror laws passed by New Labour or the coalition responsible for this assault on justice, it is being justified with provisions under common law. Yet once this precedent is established and a centuries-old tradition of justice broken, it will be much easier to hold trials in total secrecy in future.
Indeed, this government’s Justice and Security Act, passed last year, allows for the extension of secret courts, or “closed material procedures” to use the proper legal jargon. Instead of judges, ministers will be given powers over evidence in court, risking the principle of a fair trial. Liberty has suggested it could be used to keep “dirty state secrets” away from victims and the public, and 700 legal experts signed a letter condemning it as “dangerous and unnecessary“. Sadly, to no avail.
When the state asks for more power, it invariably justifies it as being for our own good, to protect our security. We are fed seductive lines about such powers only being used when strictly necessary, with cast-iron promises that they will not be abused.
When Margaret Thatcher introduced the Public Order Act in 1986, it was not explained that criminalising words or behaviour causing “harassment, alarm or distress” would be used against groups ranging from gay rights activists to Christian street preachers. When the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was passed, it was not clear it would be used against activists protesting outside US intelligence bases or Oxfordshire villagers protesting about turning a lake into a dump for fly ash. Neither did proponents of the Terrorism Act suggest that the sorts of people on the receiving end would include an octogenerian refugee called Walter Wolfgang who had fled the Nazis who had the temerity to heckle a minister.
Many of the freedoms and liberties we have today were won at huge cost and sacrifice by our ancestors. If we allow them to be discarded without a fight, then what is to stop the powerful coming for other rights? This is how freedom is eroded, when we accept the comforting rationale of a state that will quite happily amass power at the expense of individual liberties until it is prevented from doing so.
Yes, let’s have a debate about preserving our security. If the state wishes to provide terrorists with ready-made propaganda, then flaunting its attacks on civil liberties is one way of going about it. Our governments have served as highly effective recruiting officers for terrorism in other ways, too – whether it be backing the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, backing various hellish regimes such as the witch-beheading gangsters running Saudi Arabia, or the invasion of Iraq which handed vast swathes of the country to al-Qaida. These are actions that imperil our security. But if we want to ensure our safety, cracking down on civil liberties is as counter-productive as it is wrong-headed.” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/05/britain-first-secret-trial-rights)