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Invisible Barriers:Detention without Trial/Social Housing Policy in the UK Today

A. | 15.12.2008 22:54

As part of the After 60 Years…Why Human Rights? conference held on 10 December jointly by the LSE SU and CAMPACC, the London Guantánamo Campaign, London Against Injustice and People in Common, an earlier session was held at 3-5pm to kick off this event marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, considering its application to the climate and challenges we face in the UK and as a basis to create a civil society movement to ensure the rights of all.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a United Nations General Assembly Resolution passed on 10 December 1948, approved almost unanimously by all the member states at the time. As a resolution, it has no binding force as such and cannot compel any of the states that agreed to it to act in any particular way. Like the United Nations itself, it grew out of the aftermath of World War II and its grotesque demonstration of man’s inhumanity to man and the bombing of Hiroshima.

A declaration or resolution of intent unto itself is not enough and rights need to be enshrined in law to have force and must include remedies for victims if they are not respected. This took an almost further 20 years, in 1966, when the International Covenants on Political and Civil Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were introduced and a further ten years until they were ratified. Together with the UDHR, they are commonly known as the International Bill of Rights.

Despite this slow progress, the United Nations has hailed human rights as one of its major achievements. Many would beg to differ and the UN model is by no means the only one available. Furthermore human rights were not “created” in 1948. Rights, throughout history, have always involved struggle in order to be secured and even in 1948, new challenges were arising that the UDHR was ill-equipped to deal with, such as decolonisation and minority issues.

Nonetheless, the statement of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the drafters of the UDHR, concerning where human rights begin, still holds true for each and everyone of us, “in the smallest places close to home – so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

Chaired by Aisha Maniar from the London Guantánamo Campaign and attended by around 25 people, the session was cut into two very different parts focusing on the various rights provided in the UDHR, traditionally split into civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other, with an emphasis on practice in the UK and how the UK effectively operates as a prison without walls at different levels.

The first part of the session focused on detention without trial in the UK and the flipside of detention without trial: miscarriages of justice. Falling under the area of civil and political rights, this theme covers due process rights (recognition and equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, right to a fair trial and the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty) in Articles 6-11 of the UDHR and in particular Article 9 which states, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. These rights are given legal force in Article 9 of the ICCPR; the United Kingdom reserved on this article for certain parts of the UK when signing up to the Covenant, particularly in respect of its treatment of political prisoners in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. These reservations were later withdrawn but following 9/11, Britain once more derogated Article 9 obligations declaring a public emergency across the nation constituted by the threat of terrorism. This allowed the UK to introduce the Anti-Terror, Crime and Security Act 2001(ATCSA) which allowed the detention without charge or trial of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism for almost three years. Furthermore, the UK is also the only Council of Europe (Europe’s Human Rights body) state to derogate Article 5 (right to liberty and security of person) of the European Convention on Human Rights on the same basis. This effectively gives the government and the executive unfettered, arbitrary powers to detain individuals on the pretext of involvement in terrorism, in spite of the fact that no set definition of “terrorism” exists. The UK’s anti-terrorism measures have been condemned by the UN.

Participants in the session were lucky to benefit from the experience of those closely involved in and the witness of those directly affected by the “justice” system in the UK.

The first speaker was Adrienne Burrows from Peace and Justice in East London. Adrienne spoke about one of the most pernicious forms of detention without trial in the UK today: control orders. Introduced when the House of Lords found the regime of detention under the ATCSA to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998, the government introduced control orders in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 to be more “human rights-friendly”. Control orders allow the Home Secretary to put restrictions on individuals that are completely arbitrary if they are suspected of involvement in “terrorist activity”. Adrienne reported that neither the detainees nor their lawyers know what they are alleged to have done and have not seen the evidence against them. In any case, any trials that are held are held in private without the detainee or their counsel being present, as the evidence provided is secret, constituting a violation of their right to a fair hearing. Control orders are effectively a form of house arrest and visitors to detainees’ homes need to be vetted officially by the Home Office. Few people have been vetted since the introduction of this regime and as many of the detainees come from vulnerable, refugee communities (mainly from Algeria, Jordan and Libya), many of their friends would not wish to be vetted or added to a Home Office list as their own situation in the country is already precarious; this isolates individuals and families affected from their own communities even more. Friendships forged in prison with others in a similar situation who are then “released” on a control order can be restricted through a ban on communication between detainees as a condition of the said order. Detainees live with the permanent fear of indefinite detention: an arbitrary sentence for both them and their loved ones. Furthermore, control orders have no particular structure and the conditions attached to them can be changed easily.
Once subject to a control order, it can be almost impossible to be released from it. Adrienne identified two main issues currently facing detainees:
1 – The detainees have fought their cases legally, taking them through SIAC (Special Immigration Appeals Commission), the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. However, each time that the detainees make a small gain or win a small victory, the government shifts the goalposts and introduces new measures that make the detainees and their families despair of justice. Following the 7/7 attacks, they were rearrested, this time under deportation orders to the same countries they had escaped from and in which several of them had already been tortured. This was in spite of the fact that there was no suggestion that they had anything to do with it. A House of Lords ruling is currently pending and is due any time in the case of several detainees and government attempts to remove them to their countries of origin which will have huge repercussions on them and the definitions of liberty and justice in this country. The Home Office has unfettered powers in this regard and given the countries of origin of these men – Libya, Algeria, Jordan, etc. – it is clear that they are little more than pawns in the geopolitical games, strategies and foreign policy of this country and other international actors.
2 – Given the levels of despair and the years of arbitrary and unusual forms of detention that in some case do not even allow a detainee to walk to the end of his own street, many have suffered mental and emotional breakdowns. There have been suicide attempts and if nothing is done soon, there is a threat of actual suicide. None of the detainees have been charged with any offence and any evidence brought against them is so secret that it cannot be revealed to them, their counsel or in an open court. The ordeal of some of these detainees and their families has been ongoing since 2001.
As of September 2008, there are currently 16 foreign nationals and 4 British nationals subject to control orders. Two men have given up their fight and returned to Algeria; despite assurances that they would only be held for a few days upon their return to Algeria, they were arrested and tried on terror charges and sentenced to 1-7 and 1-3 years. It has been said that the secret evidence that neither they nor the lawyers were allowed to see was sent back with them and used to convict them.
Another contributor to the session reported that there are currently plans to extend control orders to foreign nationals convicted of crimes in the UK once they have served their sentences and are awaiting deportation. Under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, such detainees will be given “special immigration status” tantamount to a control order.

Hicham Yezza who was arrested under anti-terrorism laws and held without charge before being released earlier this year in Nottingham was the second speaker. He was arrested again under alleged immigration offences, as an Algerian national, and was held at various Immigration Removal Centres and is currently facing a hearing on his deportation in February 2009.
Hicham started off by saying that he was very lucky to be with us as many people are deported very quickly and have very little time to prepare a case or learn of their rights. He was fortunate to have the support given to him by the academic and wider community in Nottingham where he lives. He was held for 6 days under the Terrorism Act 2000 and was released without charge. The police knew the facts of the story relating to him and a student at the university where he worked within 12 hours yet continued to hold them for a further 5 days. He was later rearrested under the Immigration Act and initially the Home Office tried to fast track his deportation. Due to overwhelming community support, this was halted. Hicham pointed out that this fast track procedure is usually reserved for criminals and not individuals released without charge. He is still currently facing deportation and has an upcoming trial in February 2009.
What Hicham has discovered through his ongoing ordeal at the hands of the police and immigration officials is that particularly once one arrested on immigration charges, you have no rights and become a non-entity. Many of the detainees held in Immigration Removal Centres awaiting deportation cannot speak English and do not know their rights or how to access the legal system. He discovered an underbelly of British society: an invisible Britain. He described the depths of hopelessness and despair of detainees at such centres as frightening and depressing. However, he also asserted the support that communities give is important and fundamental in helping individuals in such dire situations. More on Hicham’s story:

Nicki Jamieson from Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! then spoke about the double whammy of Immigration Removal Centres and the lesser known Immigration Reporting Centres that asylum seekers have to deal with.
Nicki started off by asserting that the government’s racist policy on immigration in Britain is directly linked to its imperialist activities abroad, whether it be invading and occupying Iraq, Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia etc, or plundering the mineral wealth of countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There are currently 11 immigration removal centres operating in Britain, with one having opened in the last week, and shortly more facilities are due to be built to house a further 1,600 immigrants and asylum seekers pending removal from the country.
In 2006, on the day that HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP) released a report about conditions at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centres, there was an uprising at that centre, which is just outside London. There has been continuous resistance in detention centres, including hunger strikes and escapes by detainees. After the 2006 uprising, two Russian and two Middle Eastern detainees were arrested, tried and later acquitted of organising a riot. Both the Russians have now been deported. One of the Middle Eastern detainees is currently being held at HMP Wandsworth and the other has been released on immigration bail. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, together with No Borders and other groups, participated in a defence campaign for the four men.
There are serious concerns about the conditions in which detainees are held at all immigration removal centres and men, women and children are held sometimes without adequate access to medical and legal services coupled to the trauma of the situation that may have led them to seek asylum in the first place. On Friday 12 December, two days after the sixtieth anniversary, the HMCIP released a damning report into conditions at a removal centre outside Cambridge, Oakington, describing it as unsafe; it had been due to close in 2006 but will remain open now until 2012:
Nicki then reported on the hidden face of the immigration system: Immigration Reporting Centres. There is a network of reporting centres, 25 currently in total, mainly in larger towns and cities and refugees have to report to them sometimes on a daily or weekly basis. Some of these detainees are tagged. Some of these centres have cells to hold detainees in them and therefore come under the remit of the HMCIP. They are thus clearly identified as prisons and should be highlighted so the public know they are walking past prisons, not just anonymous government buildings.

Showing the other side of the justice system, where justice appears to be done, through a trial and conviction, Massah Barnett from London Against Injustice presented the case of her son who was wrongly convicted of GBH in an attack on a young man, during which he tried to prevent an unprovoked, drunken assault on a friend. He is currently serving a five year sentence. The first trial was a hung trial as the police could not provide enough evidence. In the second trial, young men involved in the fight were brought forward as witnesses; no further non-aural evidence was produced and although their statements were inconsistent, he was convicted by a jury. In the sentencing process, evidence was withheld by the police, including CCTV evidence and photographic evidence of the attack. Forensic evidence available was not used and at the trial, the police refused to admit procedural wrongdoing. The family is appealing and it is still hard for them to access all the evidence that is available. However, it was not only the police but solicitors involved too who were blocking access to a fair trial and tried to dissuade the family from taking their appeal forward. It was felt that as a young black man his case was already prejudiced. Massah feels that at the time the family were not given access to information about their rights and how the legal system works. Many other individuals and families find themselves in the same situation. There is a need for a concerted, united effort, a big shout, to get access to justice and for communities to unite to get access to this justice.

The seminar then moved over swiftly to focus on economic, social and cultural rights, in particular rights to housing and the city, which are often overlooked as having secondary importance, particular in the western world. Covered in Articles 22 (economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality) and 25 (adequate standard of living), there is little emphasis on communitarian and community rights in the UK, although not expressed reserved.

Michael Edwards from the Bartlett School at UCL spoke first on the link between the concept of prisons and housing vis-à-vis the deprivation of rights. In the UK [which reserved on equal pay for men and women under the ICESCR, Article 7], there is the double problem of wage and debt slavery; people are caught up in a perpetual cycle of trying to keep up with payments on the necessities of life that they simply cannot afford as the conditions of livings are not amenable to such a situation. Individuals are constantly caught in a struggle to survive and experience this struggle in a very individualised way. Whereas in earlier times of formal employment and rented housing, people confronted employers as a class and landlords as a class, they now tend to have very individualised relations with employers and with banks. The fetishisation of home ownership in the dominant ideology, and the easy credit which has been available to fund purchases and re-mortgages (driving housing prices up), mean that housing costs are a huge burden for low and middle-income people. Established owners, by contrast, get ever richer.

While most of our housing stock has been fully paid for over and over again, its scarcity and locational value is exploited as rent (or capital gains) as the economy is more and more focussed on chasing speculative asset values, less and less on production. The need to compete in this system drives people to work long and hard (wage slaves and mortgage slaves) when they would otherwise have more leisure.

Struggles of housing and land rights are of enormous importance around the world and one of the organisations which has linked activists and urban researchers for 18 years now is INURA, the International Network for Urban Research and Action

Teresa Hoskyns from the London Social Forum spoke about rights to the city.

Dave Wetzel then spoke about other possible alternatives to economic organisation, particularly of property and natural resources and their distribution. Dave regrets that the UDHR contains an Article (17) on the right to own property, since the fundamental question of justice and rights should be framed in the context of ownership and how it functions. The ownership of resources and land needs to be considered separately to the ownership of man-made products such as buildings and consumer goods. Land and natural resources require no cost of production and therefore should be treated as a common inheritance of all and not be regarded as personal property. Particularly given that within the prevalent capitalist system that it is ownership of land and resources that governs the social and political pecking order and who is entitled to what rights. Dave also proposed that as part of this reconsideration an annual land value tax (LVT), under which rather than taxing the value of the property built on land, the value of the land itself is taxed and since in Britain in particular much of this falls into the hands of a few wealthy landowners and ultimately the Crown, only they need be taxed for their "property". LVT not only has a strong moral claim to our attention but as well as justice, it also offers society a more efficient economy which offers an alternative to unemployment, exploitation and poverty. Taxes on wages and trade can be crippling and cause serious economic and social misery for many. Reconsideration of our economic and distribution structures is necessary in order to build a rights-based movement and transformation of society that respect sour economic and social rights and recognises our obligations.

Although covering two very different areas of rights and practice, some common ground was established through the presentations and insight provided by contributors and areas of mutual concern were identified. They can be summarised into three main points:
1 – overall it was felt that the domestic situation is very much linked to the international situation: in tolerating the existence of and detention without trial at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and secret prisons under the “war on terror” and acquiescence to the torture and malpractice that occurs in foreign countries vis-à-vis prisoner/detainee rights when it suits our own agenda, the UK has opened the door to such practices in this country too. Furthermore, much of the torture and abuse that takes place under the “war on terror” and indeed the provisions at Long Lartin for “terror” suspects were previously used in Northern Ireland and Republican prisoners.
This is a similar situation as concerns social and economic rights; as the UK government and British companies usurp the rights of indigenous peoples in order to rape them of their natural assets in Amazonia and the DRC, divest the Chagossian islanders of their home to lease it to the US for a naval base to launch illegal wars, not much more can be expected when similar policies are adopted on a smaller scale against local communities in the UK, particularly as concerns planning laws.
2 – there seems to be a widespread marginalisation or alienation of individuals in our community, whether as immigrants or indigenous people to the British isles. The prevalent social structures isolate people from their communities and from each other. There is little awareness about the problems of those detained without trial in the UK and much isolation from their own communities. The space for community involvement however in everyday life is also being constantly shrunk.
3 – the importance of community was emphasised all round nonetheless. The importance of support for detainees and for one another was clearly identified as one of the main ways of overcoming many of the problems identified, particularly the despair and isolation individuals may feel. Hicham Yezza reported that the support he received did much to boost his morale while detained.

Our society is analogous to a prison insofar as there are many invisible barriers that exist that serve to isolate us and institutionalise us.

Proposals for action were also put forth, as an important focus of the seminar was not merely identifying problems but how to deal with them. Particularly as concerns detention without trial, the following suggestions were put forward:
1 – Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! holds a demonstration outside Communications House, an Immigration Reporting Centre in central London on the first Tuesday of every month, to raise awareness of what goes on within. Please support the demo.

Show solidarity with asylum seekers and immigrants
TUESDAY 6 January 1-2pm
Outside the UK Immigration Service Communications House
210 Old Street, London , EC1V 9BR
(nearest tube – Old Street )
• To show vile Immigration Minister Phil Woolas that not everyone shares his racist views.
• To protest against mass deportations to northern Iraq, Afghanistan, which have continued through 2008, and to Democratic Republic of Congo, which without strong opposition will resume following the unsuccessful Court of Appeal Country Guidance case (BK) in December
• To campaign against all immigration controls. Britain is a wealthy country and has built that wealth by robbing the poor of the world. It then turns on those who come from poor countries to seek asylum or a better life.
• To let the public know what Communications House is. The building looks anonymous but immigration reporting centres are places of fear for asylum seekers, who have to report to them monthly, weekly or even several time s a week. They are places of detention and qualify for inspection by the Chief Inspector of Prisons (see
Monthly demonstration called by Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!
For more information phone 020 7837 1688

2 – letter writing and greeting cards campaigns to detainees. Sending greeting cards and letters to detainees can be an effective way of boosting morale and providing support simply by acknowledging they exist and that existence deserves some recognition. Letters and cards can be sent by individuals or by groups. One idea could be to adopt a detainee – perhaps a group of people can agree to befriend a detainee (and/or their family), visit them on a regular basis (once every two months, perhaps), call them, write to them, etc. Support for such individuals is invaluable and personalises/humanises the experience all round. Alternatively cards can be sent for religious and secular holidays.
Details of how to contact detainees can be found at:
Contact London Against Injustice
Convicted but Innocent
MOJO (Scotland)

For more details on detention without trial, please see: Locked In and Locked Out: Detention without Trial in Britain Today
And visit/get in touch with:
London Against Injustice
Peace and Justice in East London
Medical Justice
Medical Justice 4-page leaflet / report ;
"Beyond Comprehension and Decency”: A Report on Medical Abuse in Immigration Detention ;

"Outsourcing Abuse" report - 14/07/08;
Barbed Wire Britain
Prison Reform Trust



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  1. Right to the City — M