15 June 2008

With fiends like these, who needs enemies?

Much debate this week about the passage of the proposed legislation through the British parliament to enable the government to imprison people without trial for up to 42 days. Currently the police have a mere 28 days to charge people, and with much huffing and puffing, the government squeezed the bill through its second reading, like a camel through the eye of a needle.

In the agonised debates about the need to protect its citizens versus the rights of those citizens to remain unmolested, it's hard to pinpoint the precise point at which detention becomes unacceptable. No-one would deny the police some time to question arrestees before charging, but whether that is measured in hours or days, or even weeks can become Reductio ad absurdum: is 21 days acceptable but 22 a violation of habeus corpus?

Looking overseas for a steer on this debate, we can see the UK leads the way amongst western democracies, who mostly limit such detention to 7 days. Even in the War-On-Terror United States it is limited to just 2 days - on the mainland at least (military facilities in the Caribbean don't count). But I think the truth of how illiberal the UK has become is to be found in the exact opposite of such places.

Take Burma (please), or Myanmar as nobody insists on calling it. This week their military junta - generally acknowledged to be high in the Top Ten list of "people you wouldn't want running your country" - offered its latest explanation of Aung San Suu Kyi's indefinite house arrest. Her detention for the last 13 years was justified as being in line with modern anti-terrorist legislation passed by the likes of Britain. Surely you know the game is up when the Burmese government compliments you on your criminal justice system?

The fact that the UK subjects some of its citizens to indefinite house arrest, in the same way as Burma does, shouldn't fool one into making lazy comparisons, of course. After all, there are other regimes that allows such practices, so we are in good company: North Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe.

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