Britain looks like a police state from here

21 March 2007

The rule of law is being undermined as foreign nationals continue to be held without trial, says Paul Donovan

THE Archbishop of York recently questioned the practice of detaining people without charge, suggesting that Britain was becoming a police state. I have since had a first-hand opportunity to see this process in action.

G, an Algerian, has been held in a variety of forms of detention since he was first seized by police and immigration officers at 4 a.m. one day in December 2001.

It was on that day that G became one of 12 foreign nationals detained in Belmarsh prison under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. To this day, neither G, nor any of the other detainees, has ever been told what he or she is supposed to have done. None has ever appeared before an accredited court of law to answer charges: their fates have been decided for the most part under immigration laws, presided over by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission.

We sat either side of G’s front door. I was unable to enter his one-bedroomed flat, not having been vetted by the Home Office. G, a 37-year-old father of two, sat in his wheelchair inside the door of his flat. On the ankle of one of his matchstick-thin legs — the result of childhood polio — is an electronic tag. Inside the flat were G’s wife, Josephine, and their seven-month-old son. The couple’s seven-year-old daughter was at school.

G first came to Britain in 1995 having fled Algeria. He had been part of a student protest. As a result, he was taken into custody by the feared Algerian military police, the Department for Information and Security (DRS). There, he claims to have been tortured for three weeks, suffering electric shocks and beatings with sticks. On his release, he fled the country, claiming asylum when he arrived at Heathrow Airport.

Since 1995, G has lived in the same flat. He studied at the local college of further education, taking a variety of courses. He remains bright and lucid, despite the damage that more than five years in detention have done to his mental and physical health.


The first break came in December 2004, when the House of Lords ruled that detention without trial was unlawful. It was then that the concept of control orders was developed. G was allowed out for 12 hours a day, but could not use phones or the internet. He had to check in regularly with the tagging company.

Things changed for the worse after the London bombings of 7 July 2005. Despite the fact that G and the other detainees had some of the best alibis in the country, having been under surveillance and tagged, five vans of police and immigration officers arrived on 11 August 2005 to take the wheelchair-bound man off to Long Lartin prison in the Midlands.

There, he was served deportation papers by an immigration officer and told he was a risk to national security. “I was put in the deportation unit with no association. There were no cells for wheelchairs. The sink was too high. I needed help with the toilet.”

It was at this time that he reached his lowest ebb, attempting to hang himself in the cell with wire. “There was blood everywhere,” he said. “I was nearly dead before the officers rescued me.”

G was granted deportation bail on 26 October 2005. Again the conditions were stringent: 24 hours in the home, no visitors, no phone line, and no mobile. The tagging company had to be called twice a day, sometimes at night, though later bail conditions were relaxed.

G is now desperate to leave the UK and will go anywhere except Algeria, as long as his safety can be guaranteed. He understands why four of his fellow countrymen who suffered similar conditions took their chances and went back to Algeria. Two remain in prison here.

“I cannot go back to Algeria,” G said. “It would put my mother, father and family there in danger. If the Home Office can find a safe country, I’ll leave Britain.”

SO, is Britain becoming a police state? Unfortunately, the case of G is becoming increasingly typical. There are 15 Algerians known to be awaiting deportation to other countries. Some are in prison, some on deportation bail or control orders like G. Other nationals, such as the Palestinian Abu Qatada, are caught up in the same process.

The danger is that a process is being established that is effectively insulated from the basic laws of the country with its routine checks and balances. If G were a genuine security threat, then he should have been brought before a court of law and called to answer the charges that the state put against him.


The talk of putting intelligence sources in danger is a smokescreen too readily accepted. The Government and its security agencies are effectively asking for the rule of law to be suspended on the basis of unseen intelligence.

These are the same people who provided the so-called intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and more recently legitimised a raid on a house in Forest Gate, east London, which resulted in an innocent Muslim being shot.

If G is not a security threat, then he and others treated in this way should be released and allowed to live their lives in peace. It is paradoxical that many now wish to leave the UK anyway, having seen the way it treats refugees. As G told me: “I have been treated worse than an animal in this country.”

  When the countries of the former Soviet Union picked people up and incarcerated them indefinitely without trial, they were accused of running police states. Now, a security state within a state is being created in Britain, unknown to most of the population. It is high time that it was exposed.

Paul Donovan is a writer on race and migrant issues.

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