New government powers are ‘a serious abuse of civil liberties’, according to rights groups


‘ A frightening new law is now in force in the UK. It literally criminalises people simply for travelling to a specific area on the planet. And rights groups have called it “a serious abuse of civil liberties”. 

A presumption of guilt

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 (CTS) passed in February. It gives the Home Office the power to create ‘designated zones’. The opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, put out minimal opposition to it. And most Labour MPs who voted, voted in its favour. 

Home secretary Sajid Javid has expressed his intention to make north-east Syria one of these ‘off limits’ areas. 

The Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC) blasted the new law. Multiple vaguely-defined offences now have a penalty of 15 years imprisonment, up from 10 years. And visiting a “designated area” can result in 10 years imprisonment, a fine, or both. There is a limited defence of “reasonable excuse”; but as CAMPACC points out, disturbingly:

the onus is on the defendant to provide the reasonable excuse. In other words, this Act has eliminated the presumption of innocence and replaced it with a presumption of guilt.

“Criminalising vulnerable people”

CAMPACC says the law creates a deliberately oppressive situation which: 

risks criminalising vulnerable people who are groomed or otherwise convinced to travel under false pretences, as well as people who are unable to leave an area once it has been designated. 

It also pointed out that: 

Despite more comprehensive powers under anti-terror laws, the state has often failed to identify potential terrorists and to prevent them from carrying out terrorist acts. Meanwhile non-violent political activity and associations have become increasingly criminalised by the state. 

And it exposed the absurdity of the Home Office’s plans to target places like Syria under this new law, explaining that: 

Having failed to prosecute returnees for genuine terrorist acts, the government proposes to criminalise mere travel to the area – a disproportionate remedy which presumes guilt. In practice, such travel has had diverse reasons, e.g. to visit family, conduct research, document human rights abuses, undertake humanitarian relief and to join the fight against [Daesh (Isis/Isil)].

“Silencing dissent”

Civil liberties group CAGE also hit back at the government for “normalising a state of emergency, online censorship and extending PREVENT”. CAGE’s research director Asim Qureshi said: 

These terror laws are about control and silencing dissent. As we have consistently highlighted, counter-terror legislations are a danger to all of society, when in place, they are used to curb the activities of all who challenge Government policies, from environmental protestors to citizen groups protesting against state overreach.’

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