Monday 15 December 2003

Guantanamo UK

Just in case you thought us Brits were any better than our brethren across the Atlantic, there are demons in both governments hell-bent on abrogating democracy and all the other things they bleat on about incessantly.

We damn the Americans for Guantanamo, yet we are doing exactly the same thing in south-east London

by Nick Cohen

Obey! Margaret Drabble spoke for much of the intelligentsia when she told the Daily Telegraph: 'My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me like a disease.' So severe was the infection she was unable to look at anything American without retching. 'I can't keep it down any longer. I detest Disneyfication, I detest Coca-Cola, I detest burgers, I detest sentimental and violent Hollywood movies that tell lies about history. I detest American imperialism, American infantilism, and American triumphalism about victories it didn't even win.'

Worse than the Big Macs and the fizzy drinks was the indefinite detention 'without charge or trial or access to lawyers' of the 600 or so inmates at Guantanamo Bay, 'the Bastille of America'. It has turned the novelist into an activist who has vowed to keep writing to Jack Straw and his successors at the Foreign Office 'until something happens'. She isn't alone. From the Mail on the Right - Guantanamo 'spits in the face of what most reasonable people in this country would regard as justice' - to the Mirror on the Left - 'the treatment of prisoners defies decency and civilised convention' - the campaign against imprisonment without trial has united left-wing comedians with right-wing pundits, Law Lords with poets, bishops with actresses.

It is not without its hypocrisies. If you want to find men indefinitely imprisoned without trial, you don't have to go to Cuba. You can get them at home. Yet the internment of Arab terrorist suspects in Britain has passed largely unnoticed. There are no outraged playwrights or demands in Parliament to defend the basic principles of British justice. Civil liberties groups try periodically to make internment a cause célèbre, but find few takers. On the one hand, public pressure has forced New Labour to lobby Washington to give the British inmates in Guantanamo Bay a fair trial. On the other, public indifference has given it free rein to intern foreigners in Britain without a fair trial.

Centuries of experience have taught the British how to suspend the rule of law without an embarrassing fuss. They know that these matters must be handled with delicacy, and that the clumsy spectacles of the meretricious Yanks must be avoided. Britain hasn't made the mistake of providing electrifying footage. Belmarsh Prison in south-east London, where most of the detainees are held, is as drab as Guantanamo is exotic. There aren't pictures of the British detainees in fluorescent jump suits being frogmarched in manacles. Amnesty International, which brought out a report last week to mark the second anniversary of the detention, points out that the 14 internees are held in small cells for 22 hours a day. Hardly anyone sees them, let alone photographs them. Their lawyers have got court orders stopping the press identifying most of the 14 on the grounds that their families would be identified as the families of 'terrorists' when no one has been convicted of terrorism before a properly constituted court. The prohibition seems compassionate, but it hobbles the media. We need names and, above all, pictures to make a story work. That there are only 14 detainees is a further reason for the silence, but there may also be a discreditable emotion at work.

It's easy to slag off Bush; in many circles it's social death to do anything else. It's easy, too, to demand justice on the other side of the world. It's harder to demand that the prison doors open in Woolwich to let out men the Government swears have links to al-Qaeda. A cowardly voice whispers: 'What if they're right? What if they know they're al-Qaeda and just can't cut through the legal red tape? What if we win, and they're freed to pull off the big one - not in New York or Istanbul but here in Britain? We'll have blood on our hands, maybe our blood. Better and safer to shut up and concentrate on the ghastly Americans.'

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