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Raffique Shah


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Boost for civil liberties

By Raffique Shah
June 15, 2008

Preoccupied as we are with wanton and random bloodletting, rampant crime, spiralling food prices and football politics, major national issues in this crowded barracoon, interesting developments in the wider world could steal past us hardly eliciting a glance. Last week, David Davis, a very senior member of Britain's Conservative Party, shocked his colleagues and England by resigning his parliamentary seat over renewal of the "42-days detention" law. And in Washington the US Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision: detainees at the controversial Guantanamo detention camp are entitled to the privilege of habeas corpus.

Readers may well ask of Davis: who he? Until last Wednesday, he was the Tories' shadow home secretary-Britain's equivalent of our National Security Minister. True, his party is in opposition. But with ex-PM Tony Blair leaving the ruling Labour Party trailing the Conservatives in just about every poll, and worse, losing badly in recent local elections, the David Cameron-led Tories are smelling Whitehall blood. So potentially, Davis could be seen as Britain's home secretary-in-waiting.

Indeed, he is widely considered as prime ministerial material, having challenged Cameron for leadership of the party five years ago, and carrying 21 years of parliamentary experience under his belt. He cast aside what many saw as a dazzling political career on a principled stand. He felt the controversial law, which was extended by the narrowest of margins (some Labour members voted against it), which allows the police to detain "terrorist suspects" for up to 42 days without charging them, was part of a "slow strangulation of fundamental freedoms."

According to The Independent, "He thinks it is more important to make a stand now; that 42-day detention is such an infringement of our liberties. It may sound pious in the Westminster village but it may play well in the real world, where people have switched off from political parties."

David himself put the reasons for his dramatic action this way: "In truth perhaps 42 days is the one most salient example of the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedom. And we will have shortly the most intrusive identity card system in the world. A CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with thousands of innocent children and millions of innocent citizens on it."

I may have little in common with David politically, since I've always viewed the Tories as well, too conservative. But this is an ex-SAS reserve officer who had the moral courage to stand by his convictions, to act against what he saw as government trampling on civil liberties. That I can identify with. It's among the basic tenets drilled into young, Sandhurst-trained officers. As the legendary Field Marshal Slim put it: most men with moral courage learnt it by precept and example in their youth.

His friends could not understand why he would sacrifice a prime place in the future-Cabinet because of what they saw as his ego. One MP-friend, Michael Brown, wrote: "He is bold, brave, courageous-and wrong-in this incredible decision to put principle before career." For Brown and others like him-that includes most politicians-holding office is more important than standing by principle. Do we have a David here in the person of Keith Rowley? Time-and proof of allegations-will tell.

In Washington, a majority of members of the conservative Supreme Court dealt a serious blow to President Bush by declaring that the hundreds of "terror suspects" held at Guantanamo must enjoy the right to fair trials before civilian courts. Bush, Cheney, Rice and members of the White House Gang have arrogated unto themselves God-like powers in treating with "terrorists". More than 300 people, many of them boys, have been held for more than five years without recourse to any semblance of justice. They have been tortured, demeaned, isolated, lost to their families and to the world. They simply did not exist.

Until last Thursday, when the judges ruled that the authorities must bring them before regular courts, prove them guilty of the crimes they are accused of, or free them. By a very slim majority (4-3), the court has restored a human face to America's ugly image in most parts of the world. The few detainees who have been released without being charged or tried have told chilling stories of the conditions under which they were captured (the Americans paid for many captives), held, and eventually released-without even an apology.

Before that Bush and his gang resisted all efforts to either bring the men to trial or free them. Now, as he prepares to ride into oblivion, George W has to cope with a wind of change that's gathering storm-strength in that country. A Black man as presidential candidate with the support of huge numbers of Whites is haram. Now his Supreme Court has stopped short of deeming him a war criminal.

These two developments augur well for the world, post-Bush, post-Blair. We in this country can learn important lessons from them, if only we take "time out" from dealing with our ocean of woes.