The trouble with Control Orders – the UK security measure whereby terror suspects against whom a conventional legal case cannot easily be built can effectively be placed under indefinite house arrest – is that in practice they embody a presumption of guilt. This is in contrast to the long-established British legal convention that a suspect is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Yesterday, the government launched an appeal to the House of Lords against a legal ruling previously obtained by six Iraqi Control-Order detainees that their detention violated their rights to liberty and a fair trial.
As in all such cases, it is important to try to strike a balance between the legal and human rights of suspects, and the right of the public to be protected against potential murderers. But the de facto presumption of guilt is clear: if the police who press for a particular suspect to be controlled did not think that the evidence they had gathered strongly suggested the person in question was a terrorist, then there would be no point in the measures – other than the exercise of political coercion to try to intimidate radical groups and individuals into behaving in a more moderate manner. But while a sense of injustice persists about the way in which suspects’ guilt is accepted by the judges who ratify Control Orders, so the suspicion that these measures are just such a coercive political measure will linger, to the detriment of the so-called battle to win hearts and minds.
There is an alternative that would bring more fairness back into the legal process surrounding suspects of this sort. If indeed there is a presumption of guilt, why not formalise this and say that it is then down to the suspect to demonstrate his or her innocence through a fair, open judicial proceeding? The suspect would have the right to know on what basis their guilt was being presumed and could appoint a legal team to build a case in their defence. The issue could then be decided in an adversarial manner just like any other case (albeit that, for security purposes, this might not involve a jury). The difference from the assumption of innocence would be that if, on the balance of evidence, it was not conclusive whether the individual either was or was not a terrorist, the Control Order or other restrictive measure would remain in place – subject to fairly regular (e.g. six-monthly or annual) review. If the verdict was guilty, however, this would enable the suspect to be imprisoned, thus doing away with the anomalous legal no-man’s land of the current system. And obviously, a not-guilty verdict would allow the individuals affected to regain their rightful liberty.
Clearly, there are potential pitfalls behind this idea, and legal safeguards protecting both the rights of the individual and the prerogatives of the state would need to be put in place. The main issue would be whether society would be able to accept a derogation from the presumption of innocence and would be able to overcome concerns that this would lead to further erosion of this basic right. But under the present set up, the presumption of innocence is in fact not working either to protect the rights of suspects or the state’s duty of protection. It’s because the formal process of law demands that the accused be presumed innocent until proven guilty that the case against them can’t be taken to court and the suspects are left in a legal limbo. And because a democratic state can’t arbitrarily impose imprisonment without trial, it has had to come up with the Control Order compromise; but this is not secure, as recent evasions have demonstrated – so society is not being protected.
The limited admission of a formal presumption of guilt that I am advocating would recognise the realities of fighting terrorism, which are that absolute guilt is sometimes impossible to prove beyond all reasonable doubt and that therefore guilt is having to be presumed in certain cases. And, at the same time, this would allow suspects to be given a fair hearing and chance to exonerate themselves if indeed they are without blame. And this would also defuse the charge made in some quarters that Control Orders are politically motivated and are placing the legal system at the service of an oppressive, anti-Islamic state.