In the frenzied and irrational world that was post 9/11 politicians in the US, UK, Australia and other democracies told us that draconian anti-terror laws were needed to protect the community from further attacks by extremist Islamic terror networks. The laws that were passed jettisoned much cherished rights and freedoms and allowed the authorities to sweep people off the streets and hold them in detention for days without anyone knowing their whereabouts. Billions of dollars were spent on giving police, spy agencies and prosecutors resources to put terrorist suspects behind bars.

Critics of the anti-terror laws warned governments that the existing laws could do the job, and that these new powers would lead to police and intelligence operatives arresting the wrong people and inflaming relations between the Islamic community and the state. The critics — according to figures released by the UK Home Office overnight — have been proved right.

In the period from 2001 to 2008, 1,471 individuals in the UK have been arrested in connection with alleged terrorist activity. The vast majority — over 90% — have been detained under the anti-terror laws. But only 196 of those arrested have been convicted of anti-terror offences. That is, less than 15%.

These figures also suggest that the critics were right when they argued that anti-terror laws were an overreaction to 9/11 and that the existing criminal law could more than adequately deal with this type of offence. There have been 222 charges considered by courts under the anti-terror laws in the past seven years, guilty verdicts have been returned in relation to 102 of those charges — a rate of 46 percent. However, at the same time, prosecutors were much more successful when they charged people under the existing criminal law — getting convictions in 94 of 118 counts.

The UK laws have since 2006 allowed the police to detain persons without charging them for up to 28 days, and Gordon Brown’s government has been keen to extend that to 42 days. There have been six individuals who have been held for that period, but only three have been charged. This means three people have been detained by the State for a month without any charge being brought against them! And this is a democracy?

When one breaks down the successful prosecutions into offences, it shows that it is far from clear that the offender could properly be called dangerous. The major offences for which individuals have been convicted are possessing articles for terrorist purposes, membership of a terrorist organisation and fundraising. These offences can include activities such as possessing books, videos and accessing websites, giving inflammatory speeches and writing, or hanging around the wrong people at the wrong time. In other words, people are being convicted under the anti-terror laws primarily not for engaging in terrorist activity or even preparing a terrorist act, but for reading, writing and thinking.

The anti-terror laws in the UK are a failure. They did not prevent the London bombings in 2005 and they have been abused by police and security agencies who have unfairly targeted people on the basis of religious and ethnic profile. The figures prove it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey