Wednesday 2 February 2005

Banning, house arrests - it all sounds eerily familiar

And there I was thinking that David Blunkett was a scary Home Secretary, this Clarke guy is even worse!!! Talk about a fascist in psuedo-socialist clothes!

Clarke's plans take me back to the days of the South African underground

There was a moment in June last year when an already irate Foreign Office minister, Chris Mullin, seemed about to erupt. It was when a member of our delegation of relatives and supporters protesting at the Guantánamo incarcerations said that what was being done by the Americans in Cuba was reminiscent of the actions of apartheid South Africa. Snorting with derision, Mullin ridiculed the idea.

Now the government he serves is proposing a set of orders that will bring to Britain the beginnings of the kind of legal travesty that the Labour party once so energetically campaigned against.

Since I started working on the issue of Guantánamo, the South African precedent has kept repeating on me. Interviewing fathers whose sons had been swallowed up by the black hole, first of Bagram air base and then Guantánamo, I was reminded of the succession of people who used to come to our Johannesburg home, asking my parents to find relatives who had been picked up by the South African police and then had disappeared.

Hearing of the way British resident Bisher al-Rawi was transported, by the Americans, from the Gambia, via Bagram, to Guantánamo where, three years later, he is still held, or of the way British citizen Moazzam Begg was snatched from Pakistan and taken to Guantánamo, I thought of the kidnapping by the South African security forces of anti-apartheid activists from Swaziland.

And listening to the debate on whether or not torture was being used in the American camp, I wondered why the seemingly indefinite incarceration without access to lawyers or contact with their relatives wasn't recognised for what it was when the South African regime had done likewise - psychological torture.

Hearing Mullin's scorn at the South African comparison, it intrigued me that he could live comfortably with the knowledge of Belmarsh and its deliberately different handling of people based, not on colour of skin, but on the accident of their place of birth.

There are differences. Apartheid involved the systematic exclusion of the majority from their country, the transformation of the black population into foreigners. In contrast, the incarcerations at Belmarsh were only for people who are already foreigners.

But there are also other, equally worrying, differences. In South Africa, at apartheid's height, people could only be detained for 180 days before their detention orders had to be renewed. In Guantánamo, and in England until the law lords judgment, the incarcerated faced the prospect of life-long detention.

This comparison should not be made frivolously. Mullin is right: Britain is not apartheid South Africa. That country disenfranchised its majority, and did not hesitate to use the might of the state, and the firepower of its police and army, to ensure the continuation of minority rule. There is one other crucial difference: apartheid was so systematically and thoroughly embedded in South African law, that resistance by the judiciary was impossible.

It wasn't always like that. The Nationalist government's attempt in 1956 to convict hundreds of activists in the treason trial ended, four years on, with the acquittal of all of the accused. The government's response was to ratchet up its laws until there was no room for manoeuvre within the judiciary. Inquests, trials and summary detentions: all passed by on the nod.

Not so in Britain. The laws lords' judgment has meant that Charles Clarke has had to propose alterative arrangements for the Belmarsh detainees. But now, in a bizarre twist, that judgment has been met by the home secretary's threat to introduce another apartheid stand-by: bannings and house arrests.

South Africans once knew all about these measures. Before South Africa's first democratic election, you could be banned from pursuing a particular profession, from talking to another banned person, or from being in the same room with more than two people. And you could be under house arrest: banned from leaving your house during the day or, in the most punishing cases, at any time.

This is what the home secretary seems to have in mind for Britain. His argument is based on the premise that monitoring the Belmarsh detainees (many of whom have been taken beyond the brink of nervous breakdown by their detention) can never be 100% reliable. Prevented by the law lords from keeping them in jail, he now proposes to indefinitely restrict them to their homes.

Clarke's soundbites remind be of my childhood days in South Africa, which were punctuated by midnight police raids. One unforgettable memory is of being rudely woken in the early hours of January 1, so that a couple of policemen could search under my bed. They were looking for visitors who might have come to celebrate the new year with the house-arrested and banned adults.

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