Thursday, December 06, 2007

'Lyrical Terrorist' spared jail

A woman has been convicted for possessing terror manuals and pamphlets. Receiving a 9 month suspended sentence, Samina Malik, 23, was charged with possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist [BBC]. Amongst her collection of books and pamphlets were the Al-Qaeda Training Manual and The 7.62 mm SVD Dragunov Sniper Rifle Technical Description and Service Manual. She had also posted inflammatory poetry on the internet under pseudonym of the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’. But although her views were abhorrent, some commentators are saying the case should never have been brought to court. Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Muhammed Abdul Bari, told the London Times, "Many young people download objectionable material from the internet, but it seems if you are a Muslim then this could lead to criminal charges, even if you have absolutely no intention to do harm to anyone else. Samina's so-called poetry was certainly offensive but I don't believe this case should really have been a criminal matter." However, a Crown Prosecution Service spokesperson said, "Samina Malik was not prosecuted for writing poetry. Ms Malik was convicted of collecting information, without reasonable excuse, of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. This information included terrorism and poison handbooks as well as military manuals and other material likely to be useful to someone planning terrorist activity."

The conviction brings up some contentious issues. Although the manuals in question could be useful to terrorists, it is becoming more difficult to prove one did not have intent to use such documents for malicious causes. Mere possession seems to be enough for police to bring a prosecution. This has many civil liberties campaigners very worried, some suggesting that it amounts to ‘thought crime’ as depicted in George Orwell’s book 1984.

Collecting such information could be legitimate, such as a journalistic investigation. But collecting such documents because of personal curiosity or interest, may not be a strong enough defence.
But how easy is it to acquire such information and how far does the law discriminate between specific ‘terror manuals’ and information contained in commonly owned publications? The Encyclopaedia Britannica could be just such a source of information ‘useful’ to a terrorist. And older versions of such books contain greater detail than current editions as to how explosives or poisons may be made. In fact, place in context, a whole number of otherwise innocuous publications could be proven to be useful to a terrorist. Maps in particular can be extremely useful to a person or persons intending to launch an attack. In today’s information age acquiring documents cited in this most recent case is extremely easy. One document, The 7.62 mm SVD Dragunov Sniper Rifle Technical Description and Service manual, is easily available online as a 27 page PDF document. Even the Al Qaeda Training Manual has been made available in the US by the website Thesmokinggun. [N.B Links to these documents have not been provided due to possible contravention of the UK anti-terror laws]

But is possession likely to make one a terrorist? It is a difficult question for lawmakers and prosecutors alike. Does the mere possession of a knife make a person a potential killer? Does a botanist’s knowledge of poisonous plants make that person a potential murderer? By itself, possession of information should not be proof of guilt. But it is all too common for individuals to be convicted for being a terrorist, or a sympathiser, just for possessing such publications. So far most prosecutions have targeted ‘Islamic extremists’. But as laws, intended to protect Britain, become increasingly draconian, it may not be too long before others are caught in the tangle of confusing legislation. In the United States, the 1st Amendment is often cited in defence of free speech. Voltaire is often cited as saying, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." These were not his words but instead were written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre), in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire's attitude towards Claude Adrien HelvĂ©tius and his controversial book De l'esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Nonetheless, philosophically speaking, the point must be made that whilst efforts must be made to defend Britain from further terrorist attacks, this must not be at the expense of hard won freedoms.

Beside strong voices from the opposition, the Labour government is proposing to increase the length of time a suspected terrorist may be detained without charge. The current time stands at 28 days, but Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has asked that to be increased to 42 days. Civil rights groups have criticized the proposal saying it breaches fundamental human rights [BBC].
Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis said, “Not only is it a breach of fundamental liberties enjoyed for centuries by the British people, it is likely to prove counter-productive in the fight against terrorism”. But Jacqui Smith insists the change in the law was needed. "In order to ensure we prosecute people who want to cause murder and mayhem on our streets, we may well need to hold them longer to do that" she said. Ms Smith also said, "We need to legislate now for the exceptional circumstances that there might be in the future."

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