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BBC4’s Harry Potter and his strangely misleading case of the law

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BBC barrister/broadcaster Harry Potter tells us he has never had to apply for a writ of habeas corpus in his 20-year legal career and he knows of no other lawyer who has. His implication, in BBC4’s legal history series, The Strange Case of the Law, was that the great English innovation of the writ of habeas corpus had not only freed political prisoners, defiant jurors and African slaves; its mere existence ensured no modern Government would seek to hold anyone illegally in detention without charge or trial.

How wrong he is. The case of Yunus Rahmatullah, detained since 2004 at Bagram Airbase, is among many that now spoil this rosy view.

Potter is proud of English law: “a boon we have given the world”. He is one of those Whiggish historians of the British Constitution who produce their tallies of great constitutional events – Magna Carta 1215, Petition of Right 1628, Star Chamber Act 1640, the Habeas Corpus Act 1679Bill of Rights 1689 and imply that their goodness is unalloyed and that they are, once and for all, accepted, embedded and set in stone forever more.

He gallops through the tale: Magna Carta gave us (by implication) habeas corpus, the right for a prisoner to be brought before a court to verify that his detention is lawful. This (despite later enhancements) was not enough to protect individuals taken out of the English legal jurisdiction, particularly to Mont Orgueil Castle in Jersey, a place for 17th century “extraordinary rendition”. There the writ of habeas corpus did not run, and nor was the Common Law rule against torture effective.

In 1679 the Habeas Corpus Act was passed to deal with such abuses. As a result of this (and later reformed versions), according to Potter, it is taken for granted that everyone should know the charge levied against them. Arbitrary imprisonment “is something we hope has been consigned to history”. The implication is that no British Government would act in a way that would open it up to “the Great Writ”. Motherhood and apple pie spring to mind for this cornerstone of our freedoms, so unassailable is the respect for habeas corpus.

Dishonourable
Unfortunately, within days of Potter’s broadcast, the Government was indeed to be found contesting the value of motherhood and questioning the benefits of freshly baked comfort food at the UK Supreme Court. It was fighting a desperate and dishonourable battle to persuade the court that a writ of
habeas corpus should not be upheld on behalf of Yunus Rahmatullah, detained by the US at Parwan, near Bagram, a place where, it seems, the writ of habeas corpus does not run and, it is alleged, the Common Law and international law against torture is ineffective.

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Torture: A history of hypocrisy

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We do not torture people, say the British authorities. In 2010 the former prime minister said so in February. The same year the Foreign Office said so in May. They have repeated it in April 2012 in the context of the extraordinary rendition cases: “The UK government’s policy is clear: we do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose. We have consistently made clear our absolute opposition to such behaviour and our determination to combat it wherever and whenever it occurs.”

The Consolidated Guidance to Intelligence Officers on interviewing detainees uses the same standard formula: “We do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose”.

The head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, has said so: “We have nothing whatsoever to do with [torture]”.

We know in our hearts that we do not torture. It is something that is deeply etched on our collective psyche, part of our ancient legal tradition and an essential feature of our British values.

Indeed, so clear are we that we do not torture that we did not feel it necessary to abolish torture until 1988 – as a result of obligations under international human rights law.

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