Thursday, 16 August 2007

UK: Terrorism Powers Should Not Be Used Against Heathrow Protesters

UK: Terrorism Powers Should Not Be Used Against Heathrow Protesters

(London, August 15, 2007) – The British authorities should not use terrorism powers against protesters at London's Heathrow airport, Human Rights Watch said today. In a demonstration against global warming, hundreds of protesters have set up a tent camp next to the airport to pressure the government to halt the airport's planned expansion.

"These are clearly political protesters, not terrorists, and the police should be using its regular powers to deal with them," said Joanne Mariner, Human Rights Watch's terrorism and counterterrorism director. "Any protesters responsible for disrupting flights or damaging property may be prosecuted, but powers granted under counterterrorism legislation should not be used against people simply engaging in public demonstrations."

On Saturday, The Guardian reported that a document produced by police at a court hearing relating to restrictions on the demonstration stated that the police would use their counterterrorism authority to deal with the Heathrow demonstrators. The document reportedly said: "Should individuals or small groups seek to take action outside of lawful protest they will be dealt with robustly using terrorism powers."

Under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which was specifically cited in the document, the police have the power to stop and search any vehicle or pedestrian if the police commander "considers it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism." The controversial provision does not require that the police have reasonable grounds before stopping and searching an individual, and has been extensively used to police peaceful political protests.

On Monday, protesters at Heathrow claimed that the police had already begun stopping and searching them under terrorism legislation.

Although the international community has not agreed on a precise definition of terrorism, it is widely understood that the term applies only to the most serious crimes of political violence directed at instilling fear in the population in order to achieve a political goal. In the words of UN terrorism expert A.P. Schmid, terrorism is "the peacetime equivalent of a war crime."

The use of counterterrorism legislation against political protesters demonstrates how overly broad powers and laws such as thoseconferred in section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 are liable to be used as a matter of convenience or expedience against any form of political action or dissent, rather than against the narrow category of terrorist offenses that they should target. The police's regular powers of arrest relating to breaches of public order, trespass and property damage are adequate to deal with such protests. Rather than inappropriately using powers granted to them under counterterrorism legislation, the police should rely on their regular policing powers.

Human Rights Watch has previously criticized the El Salvadoran government for relying on counterterrorism legislation to prosecute political protesters.

For more of Human Rights Watch's work on Counterterrorism in the United Kingdom, please visit:

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