From Guildford to Guantanamo: how the world has changed
spiked editor Mick Hume's Notebook in The Times (London).
- One evening in October 1974, the police pulled me off my pushbike at the first roadblock we had ever seen in my small Surrey town.
They were looking for the IRA men who had bombed two pubs up the road in Guildford. Since a 14-year-old in football boots was unlikely to be involved, they let me pass. Others were not so fortunate. Four people who had as little to do with the pub bombings as I had were arrested, convicted and given long sentences. They spent 15 years in jail before being cleared.
That injustice was back in the news this week, with Tony Blair’s apology to the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven (falsely convicted on explosives charges in a related case). Some observers have sought to emphasise the ‘disturbing parallels’ between 1974 and today, in terms of tough anti-terrorist laws and unjust detentions that can lead to serious miscarriages of justice.
Yet the Guildford Four case seems to me to illustrate how much the world has changed. They were arrested under a draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act rushed through Parliament in a day without protest. The legal authorities were determined to convict them despite the absence of any evidence apart from confessions obtained under duress. The judges at the trial and the first appeal gave the police the benefit of any doubt. The media and almost everyone else accepted the guilt of the Guildford Four. There was silence while 11 innocent people were left to rot in jail for years; one died there.
Now, by contrast, the Government’s anti-terror legislation causes endless controversy everywhere from Parliament to the BBC. The law lords have ruled that indefinite detention infringes the human rights of terror suspects, and judge-only courts have ordered that some be released because of lack of evidence. Former Guantanamo Bay detainees who claim to have been abused by the US and British authorities seem to be instantly believed by many in the media.
We hear a lot of rumours about top-level conspiracies in today’s War on Terror. Yet the evidence suggests that the political and legal establishment is now incapable of maintaining a united front or keeping the lid on anything dirty for more than a few days, before somebody leaks it to the media. Thirty years ago, instead of a Freedom of Information Act, the State had the freedom to make up evidence with impunity, and effectively to ‘disappear’ people for more than a decade.
So let us defend our freedoms, and stand up to the State whenever it starts taking liberties. But let us also get real about all these conspiracy theories and cries of ‘police state’. Compared to the scary, shadowy forces that framed the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six in the 1970s, those responsible for anti-terrorism today often appear to be scared of their own shadows.
- One legal right under pressure today is trial by jury.
The 1977 trial of the IRA ‘Balcombe Street Gang’ stands as a reminder of why juries remain a vital check on the abuse of power. The four IRA men refused to recognise the court, except to read out a political statement to the jury which made clear that they had planted the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombs, with which they were not charged and for which innocent people had already been jailed. Defence lawyers picked holes in the prosecution’s attempt to deny a link between those bombings and the group’s other attacks. The jury returned as expected with unanimous verdicts on the 25 charges, but while finding them guilty of murder, the jury found the IRA men not guilty on several other counts, to the consternation of the police.
One anonymous juror was later quoted as saying: ‘We were, in a way, rebelling against being railroaded by the court into unanimous verdicts of guilty. We thought it was immoral. Also, we definitely felt that they were connected with Guildford and Woolwich.’ After the judge had sentenced the IRA men to life, some jurors retired to the pub. They reported being set upon by armed plainclothes officers, and trying to escape down the Underground.
Such cases are worth recalling when some want to chase jurors out of our courts, if not down the Tube. Of course juries do not always deliver the ‘right’ verdict. That is one reason why we need them.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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