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The state tools up for confrontation

The summonsing of social networks Facebook, Twitter and the Blackberry messenger service to the Home Office in London today is part of a growing crackdown by the state in the wake of the riots in a number of English cities.

Prime minister Cameron suggested in a speech to Parliament that the government should be able to “disconnect” social networks and phone networks at times of civil disorder. Today’s meeting, hosted by home secretary Theresa May, is being held in response to his call.

There are already reports that the spy agencies MI5 and GCHQ are working to break Blackberry’s encryption technology that has made it a first choice for business users and state officials.

This is just one example of a co-ordinated campaign by the government and state institutions to set aside democratic niceties like the rule of law and human rights legislation in the wake of the riots.

Since the riots, the government has announced plans to weaken human rights legislation, allow police to use water cannons and rubber bullets and said that police will be given blanket curfew powers. This is the state tooling up for social confrontation on a serious scale.

As for the rule of law – whereby the courts are immune to political and police pressure and accused cannot be detained unreasonably or without charge – that is already being seriously undermined by the actions of the police and the government.

Cameron told MPs it was about time decisions were made in Parliament, not in courts. Attacking one recent decision, he said “how completely offensive it is to have once again a ruling by a court that seems to fly completely in the face of common sense". That is the language used by petty dictators everywhere.

He set the tone for the courts when he said that anyone convicted "should expect to go to jail". He threw his support behind the four years jail for Facebook comments, saying the court had decided "to send a tough message".

The voices in opposition have been few and far between. Labour has said nothing, while a few Liberal MPs have bleated their fears. Leading criminal barrister John Cooper QC warned that judges and magistrates had a duty "not to be influenced by angry Britain", describing some of the sentences handed down already as "disproportionate and somewhat hysterical".

Not long ago, magistrates courts were known as police courts, where the word of a police officer was never challenged. The name may have changed but they have reverted to type since the riots.

Over 62% of those arrested over the riots have been remanded in custody, compared to the average of 10% for those appearing before a magistrate. That’s because the police wanted it that way.

A document written by the Met suggested that no one arrested in or after the riots should be let off with a caution – regardless of the offence.

Everyone arrested should be held in custody, with a recommendation that bail should also be denied. The document says: "The volume of prisoners being processed makes it impractical to bail for the purpose of protracted investigation.”

Solicitor Edward Kirton-Darling, of Hodge, Jones & Allen, whose client was denied bail, said:

The right to bail is a long-standing and essential part of our criminal justice system. It should be carefully considered and each case should be looked at on its own merits.

In relation to the riots, it seems that the Metropolitan police took a strategic decision to apply a blanket ban and deny everyone bail, no matter what their circumstances. I consider this policy is unlawful as a result.

Hodge, Jones & Allen are seeking a judicial review and their letter to the Met describes the policy as amounting to "unlawful arbitrary detention" of people.

Undoubtedly, the state is preparing for more than a repeat of the disorganised riots. A developing social crisis, prompted by a failing economy and spending cuts, is surely what the authorities have in mind this coming autumn and winter. The state is laying down the gauntlet and campaigns for democratic alternatives like people's assemblies are more vital than ever.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
24 August 2011

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