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Islamic State would 'love' internment in Britain, says former terrorism chief

One of Britain's most senior former police officers tells MEE that return of internment would 'damage trust' in Muslim communities
Demonstration in 2004 outside Belmarsh, south-east London, to support prisoners held under anti-terrorist legislation (AFP/file photo)

The introduction of internment for terrorism suspects in the wake of the Manchester bombing would act as a recruiting sergeant for the Islamic State (IS) group and "damage trust" in Muslim communities, a former senior counter-terrorism chief told Middle East Eye.

The comments from Sir Peter Fahy, who served as chief constable of Greater Manchester Police for seven years, come as a former prisoner at a detention unit dubbed the "British Guantanamo Bay" told MEE that incarceration of terrorism suspects without trial would be "unjust" and "inhumane" in the wake of the Manchester attack, which killed 22 people, including seven children.

Fahy, who was counter-terrorism lead for the National Police Chiefs' Council until he retired in 2015, told MEE that IS would "love" to see a return of internment and that "locking people up without charge would really damage trust in the sort of people we need". 

He added: "These [are the] sort of people who are on the edge."

"The fact is that there's a battle of ideas and there is a battle on the internet. It's about achieving a balance between freedom and liberty," he said.

Fahy was responding to comments made by Tarique Ghaffur, a Muslim former senior officer in the Metropolitan Police, who said that Britain faced "an unprecedented terrorist threat" because "3,000 extremists are subjects of interest to MI5 and police".

Ghaffur, who served as former assistant chief commissioner of the force during the 7/7 bombings in London, added: "The time has come to set up special centres to detain these 3,000 extremists."

Former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, Peter Fahy, in April 2009

But Lord Brian Paddick, a former Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner who served alongside Ghaffur at the time of the 7/7 attacks, told MEE that to bring back internment would be "misguided and likely counter-productive".

"If any community believes that cooperating with police and security services will mean that fellow citizens will be locked up without trial then all cooperation will cease," he added. 

Former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Ian Blair also said that internment was ineffective. "We must not move to a situation where we are just sweeping up people," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday.

However, ahead of next Thursday's general election, the leader of UKIP, Paul Nuttall, used a leadership debate on Wednesday night to argue that internment might be necessary.

Asked if it would make Britain safer to detain suspected terrorists without trial, he said: "I've said nothing should be taken off the table... I'd put British lives over the human rights of jihadis any day."

On Tuesday, he said that internment might be necessary to counter the "Islamist cancer".

Nuttall and Ghaffur have found support from Colonel Richard Kemp, a former chair of Cobra, the government committee set up to respond to national crises, who said that Britain ought to detain if it cannot deport "every single person who we have intelligence upon, who is known to be involved in terrorism".

As the political row over internment continues, a former prisoner detained for four years under the controversial Anti-terrorism, Crime & Security Act 2001 told MEE that the internment of terror suspects would be "unjust" and "inhumane".

The prisoner, who asked to be referred to as Detainee G, an initial assigned to him by authorities, was arrested in December 2001 and held indefinitely without charge alongside 16 other foreign nationals in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York.

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Detainee G

Fast-tracked through parliament in the months after 9/11, the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 gave authorities sweeping powers to suspend habeas corpus and detain foreign nationals without charge.

More than a dozen foreign nationals, including Jordanian preacher Abu Qatada, were held in a high-security unit in Belmarsh prison dubbed "a prison within a prison" and the "British Guantanamo Bay".

Detainee G was accused of actively supporting the Algerian militant Salafist group GSPC. At the time of his arrest the Home Office said he had encouraged young men to train with Islamist groups in Afghanistan and had links with al-Qaeda members. 

His case was heard in a little-known court called the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), which assigned him an initial but prevented him or his lawyer from seeing any evidence held against him.

Instead a "special advocate" with top-level security clearance was appointed by the court to represent him in the closed, secret sessions and to present the "gist" of the case to him and his lawyer.

"It’s 16 or 17 years and I still haven’t seen my evidence," he told MEE.

"I’m ready to go to a normal court but they haven’t brought any evidence."

Internment without trial or charge was struck down in 2004 by the House of Lords on human rights grounds.

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, in his ruling, said: "Indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial is anathema in any country which observes the rule of law."

'Indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial is anathema in any country which observes the rule of law'

Lord Nicholls of Birkinhead, House of Lords

Detainee G, who is Algerian, said that a series of events that "destroyed my and my family’s life" began early one morning in December 2001 when police officers stormed his house to arrest him.

He says they presented a letter signed by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, accusing him of involvement with extreme groups in Algeria and helping support fighters in Chechnya.

"I thought they were taking me to the police station", he said.

Instead he was taken to Belmarsh prison, where he says he was locked up for 22 hours a day and unable to see his wife for months.

He said that conditions in Belmarsh – which Amnesty International has described as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" – were so severe that he attempted suicide in his cell. 

After leaving Belmarsh on mental health grounds in 2004 he was immediately placed under strict bail conditions which he said was virtual "house arrest".

Detainee G, who denies the accusations against him, is now free, but he said he finds it "difficult" to get on with his life because the experience has left him in constant need of psychological support.

"We are in Britain, we are supposed to have human rights," he said.

'We are in Britain, we are supposed to have human rights'

Detainee G

Recruiting sergeant for the IRA

The internment of terrorist suspects without trial by British authorities has been more closely associated with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where it was introduced as a counter-terrorism measure to fight the IRA in the early 1970s.

Almost 2,000 suspects – the vast majority Catholics - were held without trial and subjected to the notorious "five techniques", later labelled as "torture" by the European Court of Human Rights.

The violent backlash that followed led the British government to suspend the Northern Ireland government and impose direct rule from Westminster in 1972.

Irish human rights lawyer Fahad Ansari told MEE that the calls to bring back internment were "tragic" and a "knee-jerk" reaction to the Manchester bombing.

The experience in Northern Ireland, he said showed that "internment will increase the threat of terrorism which made Britain a far more dangerous place to live".

He added that it would lead to mass arbitrary detentions based largely on "racism and bigotry" and called on the British government to rethink its anti-terrorism strategy.

The Home Office spokesperson declined comment on whether it supports the measures and told MEE that it was a matter for the next government.

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