Up to 15 years in jail for viewing terrorist literature online

31st May 2019

It is not the first time that new counter-terror laws in the UK have been likened to ‘thought crimes.’ In case anyone missed that latest raft added last month to the statutory books, it is now an offence to view what is designated as terrorist propaganda and doing so is punishable for up to 15 years in prison.

Other custodial sentences can also be dished out for entering yet to be specified as ‘designated areas’ abroad and making ‘reckless expressions’ of support for proscribed groups.

According to Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 gives “police the powers they need to disrupt terrorist plots earlier and ensure that those who seek to do us harm face just punishment”. The Government has also lengthened prison sentences for several terror offences, ended automatic early release for convicts and put them under stricter monitoring after they are freed.

Regular bouts of new counterterrorism laws have become almost annual rituals, creating often draconian offences and special powers in addition to existing crimes, surveillance and search powers. Much of the new legislation is so sweeping and tends to undermine civil liberties and fundamental human rights. The vast majority, needless to say, is targeted against Muslims from cradle to grave.

The justification, if one was ever needed, were the 2017 attacks in London and Manchester, though perhaps not the one outside Finsbury Park mosque. “The threat from terrorism continues to evolve and so must our response, which is why these vital new measures have been introduced,” the Home Secretary said.

No mention was made of a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights last year that warned the offence of viewing terrorist literature and punishable by up to 15 years in prison, “is a breach of the right to receive information and risks criminalising legitimate research and curiosity.”

Successive governments have had a tendency to ignore expert advice when trying to invent new crimes that often follow from the failure of previous rafts of legislation.

Some MPs in this instance had urged ministers to scrap plans to criminalise viewing “information useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”, which actually go much further than already much-used laws that made physically collecting, downloading or disseminating the material illegal.

Professor Joseph Cannatacithe, first UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to privacy, has also accused the Government of straying towards “thought crime” and of violating human rights. “It seems to be pushing a bit too much towards thought crime…the difference between forming the intention to do something and then actually carrying out the act is still fundamental to criminal law.” Since visitors to all websites are recorded, any who wander on those selected can be easily arrested.

For almost 20 years, the UK has been passing series of counter-terror laws that include so many excesses like the indefinite detention without charge of foreign nationals if suspected of involvement in terrorism, unsafe and unfair control orders imposing severe and intrusive prohibitions, pre-charge detentions, speech offences, port and border detentions without reasonable suspicions. The list is endless.

Instead of adding more and more so-called terror crimes to the statutory, it is well overdue to carry out a complete overhaul of existing laws. While some specific offences may be necessary, so many more are questionable. Worse still they risk being self-defeating. In the past, both main parties have been competing to see who can sound the most oppressive as if to score points and win votes. It is hardly a way to make cool and calculated policies.

 

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