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UK leading Europe-wide 'race to the bottom' with Orwellian counter-terrorism laws - new report

The UK is leading a Europe-wide “race to the bottom” with Orwellian counter-terrorism measures that seriously threaten human rights, Amnesty International warned today (17 January) as it published an in-depth analysis of national security laws across the EU.

The 70-page report, Dangerously disproportionate: The ever-expanding national security state in Europe, shows that the UK has enacted a raft of measures in the name of national security that are amongst the most draconian in the EU. In more than half the areas of concern highlighted by the report, the UK is at the extreme end of the spectrum with measures on mass surveillance, the use of unreliable “diplomatic assurances” in order to deport people where there is a risk of torture, stripping people of their nationality, controlling their movements and detaining them without charge or sufficient legal process.

All of these measures undermine fundamental freedoms and dismantle hard-won human rights protections, said Amnesty.

The report shows that similar sweeping new laws across the EU are driving Europe into a deep and dangerous state of permanent securitisation. Based on more than two years’ research across 14 EU countries, as well as analysis of initiatives at international and European levels, it shows how counter-terrorism measures have have eroded the rule of law, enhanced executive powers, peeled away judicial controls, restricted freedom of expression and exposed everyone to unchecked government surveillance. The impact on foreigners and ethnic and religious minorities has been particularly profound.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK said:

“The Big Brother surveillance state that George Orwell warned of back in 1949 is alive and dangerously well in Europe today. Governments, including the UK, are not far off creating societies in which freedom is the exception and fear the rule, which should be of deep concern to us all.

“After a series of horrific terrorist attacks across Europe, EU governments have rushed through a raft of repressive laws. There is an obvious and urgent need to protect people from this kind of violence – protecting the rights to life, and to live, move and think freely are essential tasks of government, but they are not ones to be achieved by any means and at the cost of such rights themselves.

These laws trample on hard won freedoms that we have long taken for granted. The UK could have been a beacon of progress here, but instead it is leading a race to the bottom. Governments should be providing security for people to enjoy their rights, rather than restricting people’s rights in the name of security.”

Surveillance states

Many EU countries have joined the ranks of “surveillance states” as new laws allowing indiscriminate mass surveillance have been passed giving intrusive powers to security and intelligence services. In November, the UK's Investigatory Powers Act - or “Snoopers Charter” - gained royal assent, containing some of the most sweeping surveillance powers in the world, allowing for the indiscriminate interception of data including emails and phone records. Despite the government's assurances to the contrary, this legislation threatens to have devastating consequences for privacy and other human rights in the UK and beyond.

David Miranda, a Brazilian national who was assisting with the journalistic investigation into Edward Snowden's surveillance revelations, was stopped under terrorism powers while transiting through the UK in 2013. He was detained, searched and interrogated for nine hours on suspicion of involvement in “espionage” and “terrorism.” He will be speaking at a press conference in Brussels to launch the report tomorrow (17 Jan).

Mass surveillance powers have also been granted or otherwise expanded in France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, among others, allowing the mass interception of and possible access to the data of millions of people.

Unsupervised targeted surveillance has also been massively expanded. Poland’s 2016 Counter-terrorism Law permits covert surveillance measures targeting foreign nationals, including wire-tapping, monitoring of electronic communications, and surveillance of telecommunications networks and devices without any judicial oversight for three months.

In France, a state of emergency has been renewed five times standardising a range of intrusive measures, including powers to ban demonstrations and conduct searches without judicial warrants. Meanwhile, temporary emergency measures, such as administrative orders controlling movement in the UK and France, have increasingly become embedded in ordinary law. In Poland, a new counter-terrorism law permanently cements draconian powers – which include the discriminatory targeting of foreign nationals.

Some countries have misused counter-terror laws to target human rights activists and political activists. The use of emergency laws by French police to put environmental activists under house arrest ahead of the UN Climate Conference in Paris in 2015, is a stark example.

The new normal: Emergency laws and emergency-like measures

In several countries, including the UK, constitutional amendments or legislation have made it easier to declare a formal state of emergency or grant special powers to security and intelligence services, often with little or no judicial oversight.

For example, new legislation in Hungary provides for sweeping executive powers in the event of a declared emergency including the banning of public assemblies, severe restrictions on freedom of movement and the freezing of assets. Vaguely-defined provisions grant powers to suspend laws and fast-track new ones and deploy the army to quell disturbances.

Thought crimes

In a modern twist on the Orwellian “thought crime”, Amnesty is warning that people in EU countries, including in the UK, can now be prosecuted for actions that have extremely tenuous links to actual criminal behaviour.

With counter-terror measures focusing ever more on prevention, governments have invested in “pre-crime” initiatives and become increasingly reliant on administrative control orders to restrict people’s freedom of movement and other rights. This has led to many people being placed under curfew, given travel bans or electronically tagged without ever being charged with or convicted of any crime. In these cases evidence is often kept secret, meaning that those accused of “pre-crimes” are not able to adequately defend themselves.

Targeting of refugees and minority groups

Migrants and refugees, human rights and other activists and minority groups have been particularly targeted by new powers, with profiling, often based on stereotyping, leading to the outright misuse of laws that define terrorism very loosely.

Many EU member states are attempting to draw links between the refugee crisis and the threat of terrorism. In November, a Hungarian court sentenced Ahmed H - a Syrian national residing in Cyprus – to ten years in prison for committing an “act of terror”. This “act of terror” consisted of throwing stones and speaking to a crowd through a megaphone during clashes with border police. In reality, Ahmed H had travelled to help his elderly parents on their journey fleeing Syria to Europe. While he admitted stone throwing, footage shows that he had also been trying to calm the crowd.

Ahmed’s wife, Nadia, told Amnesty International: “Our lives have been turned upside down. I try to be both mother and father to my daughters but it is very hard. We miss Ahmed and we are scared for him.”

A chilling effect

The fear of being labelled a security threat or an “extremist” has had a chilling effect on freedom of expression. In Spain, two puppeteers were arrested and charged with “glorification of terrorism” last February after a satirical performance during which a puppet held a banner with a slogan which was deemed to support an armed group. In France, a similar offence – “apology of terrorism” – has been used to charge hundreds of people, including children, for “offences” such as posting comments on Facebook that do not incite violence.

In 2015, French courts handed down 385 sentences for “apology of terrorism”, a third of which were against minors. Definitions of what constitutes “apology” are extremely broad.

Again in Spain, a popular musician was arrested and detained in May 2015 for a series of tweets including a joke about offering former King Juan Carlos a cake bomb as a birthday gift.

Amnesty’s report is released on the eve of the adoption of the EU Directive on Combating Terrorism, the latest regional attempt to standardise counter-terrorism laws and which threatens to have a severely damaging impact on human rights.

The countries profiled in various sections of the report are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Not every EU country is mentioned in this report, but almost all have initiated bills, adopted laws and/or carried out security operations similar to many of those described.



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