It was reported today that the government is rushing through an emergency bill in the wake of a Salford magistrates court ruling, subsequently backed by a judicial review at the supreme court, that means police officers cannot bail suspects for more than 96 hours without either charging or releasing them. For years, the police and the courts have assumed that this time limit could be spread out, often over months, whilst suspects often have severe restrictions placed upon them before being called back for further questioning.
The BBC’s Mark Easton, in an excellent article last week, highlighted the potential consequences of such restrictions on political activists and campaigners:
Consider the case of four women peace protesters arrested in February last year for obstructing a highway following a day of action at the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston.
Police didn’t have enough evidence to charge them with any offence, so they released them on bail pending further enquiries. But the bail included strict conditions as to where they could go, including a ruling that they couldn’t join their friends on the peace camp at the Trident factory.
Now, whatever you might think of the protest, we are talking here about four women against whom the police do not have sufficient evidence of a crime having been committed to charge them. For two months their liberty was restricted while detectives apparently searched for clues and found none.
A letter to the Observer yesterday from a number of lawyers and experienced civil rights campaigners (including Newham Monitoring Project) has welcomed the supreme court ruling, arguing that bail conditions have been routinely used “as part of a wider public order strategy aimed at disrupting protest movements”. Interestingly, one prominent civil liberties group, Liberty, is missing from the signatories to the letter – which is not surprising, because it supports the police’s position that they should be allowed to bail suspects for more than 96 hours, despite evidence that the practice can lead to severe restrictions on the freedoms of people who have been convicted of no crime.
This is not the first time that Britain’s “pre-eminent” civil liberties charity has adopted decidedly strange positions. In the past, it has minced its words over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and over new anti-terrorism stop & search powers and entered into an unhealthily close collaboration with the police over March’s TUC demonstration. As Mark Easton accurately points out, there really is no basis to the alarmist right wing nonsense warning that “tens of thousands of suspected murderers, rapists and other criminals could walk free”. However, it appears that Liberty has decided, once again, to play it safe and call for ‘safeguards’, instead of grasping what Easton describes as “the opportunity for a public debate about the use of police bail and how we might encourage speedy and just processes”.
In doing so, the emerging gulf between its ‘respectable’ Westminster and media focused approach to policing issues and that of the people with first-hand experience of the abuse of police power has grown a little wider. Not for the first time, I’m so glad that I cancelled my membership long ago.