01:03, October 26 78 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-26 01:03:03
If my sister can be drawn into the anti-terror net, imagine the risk to others

My twin sister, Eleanor, is not a terrorist. It is absurd to have to write this. Three months ago – after travelling to Scotland to attend our grandfather’s funeral – she was arrested at Edinburgh airport under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. She was forced to hand over her passwords for her mobile phone and computer; she was interrogated about the political beliefs of her relatives (myself included); and then was driven from the airport to a police station to have her DNA sample and fingerprints taken. After being detained for four hours, she missed her flight back to Berlin, where she lives: the police refused to even pay the cost of a ticket for a new flight.

Here’s the background. My sister took part in July’s protests at the G20 summit in Hamburg. She was sprayed by water cannon and tear gas, witnessed police brutality and, in the melee, fell and injured her legs. She was later arrested on suspicion of being in the anarchist black bloc (she wasn’t), detained for 36 hours and released without charge.

Her first arrest itself represented an attack on the civil liberties of a peaceful protester. The second can hardly be construed as anything other than an attempt to intimidate and harass someone exercising their fundamental democratic rights – using legislation supposedly designed to prevent would-be murderers committing atrocities. The Labour MSP Neil Findlay has written to Scotland’s justice minister with a series of questions about my sister’s case: including whether the detention was fair, justified or proportionate; about the tactics Police Scotland used against “a wholly innocent UK citizen”; and asking who authorised the action.

No one rational disputes the need for laws to protect people from the threat of terror. It is not unreasonable, after all, to expect anti-terrorism legislation to be used to target terrorists. When such laws were introduced, critics suggested they would threaten civil liberties and infringe on the rights of the innocent. They were smeared as scaremongers, and yet they were vindicated.

Eleanor is herself desperate to emphasise that she has a privileged position. She is a white woman whose brother is a newspaper columnist. “I’m more worried about people who don’t have my privileges or voice who are wrongfully harassed by this law,” she tells me. “I want my case to be used to bring attention to their injustice.”

Schedule 7, a legacy of New Labour authoritarianism, grants the police sweeping and unchecked powers at the border: at airports, ports and international train stations. “It allows the police to detain and question someone without any suspicion of wrongdoing,” says Millie Graham Wood, a solicitor at Privacy International. “And so they are often suffered by people who have done nothing wrong.”

If few of those who are targeted by section 7 go on to challenge it – perhaps feeling embarrassed or intimidated, or simply not wanting further hassle – then the police clearly feel that they can get away with it.

As my sister puts it, white people like her are not normally the victims. Schedule 7 reeks of racism. According to Liberty, in 2010/11 45% of those targeted were Asian, 21% black, and a mere 8% white. The police can question those they detain for up to nine hours, and keep their possessions for up to a week, while the detained have no right to remain silent and no right to a lawyer. Their basic civil rights are suspended.

The forcible downloading of data from laptops and mobile phones is chilling too. In the modern era, our entire lives are contained on these devices, including the most sensitive and personal details. Allowing strangers to scour through our photos and information on everything from our sexuality to medical conditions is horribly intrusive, humiliating even. And the disproportionate targeting of minority Britons is a form of state-sanctioned harassment that should concern us all.

As David Anderson QC – the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation – puts it, there is an “absence of a suspicion threshold for some of the more intrusive powers under schedule 7”. Yet the government has refused to accept his recommendation for such a threshold – meaning that innocent people will continue to have their civil liberties infringed. Indeed, David Miranda – partner of the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald – was detained under the clause four years ago. As a court of appeal judgment into his detention later found, schedule 7 was incompatible with the European convention on human rights.

Other activists have suffered my sister’s fate: in 2009 the climate change campaigner Chris Kitchen was prevented from travelling to Copenhagen for the climate change talks. In 2012 anarchists were prevented from visiting an international gathering in Switzerland; their data was also taken. The same happened to a peace campaigner. It’s not just schedule 7 either. A 2009 report detailed the use of other anti-terror laws against protesters.

Britain has suffered deadly terrorist attacks this year that have cost the lives of dozens of people: children at a Manchester concert, revellers in Borough market, tourists on Westminster Bridge, and a worshipper at a mosque. Yes, there is an indisputable need for the police and security services to have the powers they need to prevent such acts. But it suits the government to deflect attention from having slashed 20,000 police jobs, and instead emphasise the need for ever more authoritarian legislation. After all, Theresa May denounced police officers who warned such cuts would put the country at risk as “crying wolf” and “scaremongering”. Yet Max Hill QC – the current independent reviewer of terrorism legislation – this week warned against the government’s “kneejerk reaction” to recent attacks. Without “very careful work”, he said, plans to imprison those who repeatedly look up online terrorist content could mean innocent people being locked up. Is that scaremongering? Or does the experience of my sister underline that this is a very obvious risk?

Our rights and freedoms were won with huge sacrifice. Allowing the threat of terrorism to deprive citizens of basic human rights is dangerous. It also hands victories to terrorists who can quite rightly boast of changing our way of life and of widening divisions within our communities.

My sister’s case represents an attempt to intimidate a protester. Activists and innocent Britons from minority backgrounds are having their civil rights taken away from them. It is an affront to our democracy, and it must stop.