UK anti-terror legislative and judicial steps threaten civil rights and freedom

Since the beginning of 2019, the UK government has taken a number of worrying steps in the name of tackling terrorism and security that had created a hostile environment for civic rights activists and the media. This includes sentencing on terrorism-related charges of peaceful protesters blocking a flight undertaking mass deportation of migrants; and passing two bills that may have a serious implication on press freedom and freedom of expression. Meanwhile police has repeatedly delayed the much needed review on the policing of anti-fracking protests during which there have been often complaints of excessive police force against protesters.

Additionally, the arrest of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, in April 2019 has sparked condemnation by the UN and human rights groups fearing for his safety and well-being due to his possible extradition to the USA where he is sought for prosecution on charges relating to the publication of hundreds of thousands secret US files on the WikiLeaks website in 2010, that implicate US forces in human rights violations in Afghanistan and Iraq. (See more details in the relevant sections below)

Peaceful Assembly

"Stansted 15" protesters against migrant deportation sentenced following disproportionate use of anti-terror legislation

On 6th February 2019, a court sentenced 15 activists (known as the #Stansted15) convicted of a terrorism-related offence for their peaceful protest to block a flight at Stansted airport with the aim to stop a mass migrant deportation in March 2017. The activists trespassed and chained themselves to an aeroplane due to deport 57 people to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. None of the Stansted 15 activists received prison time as the judge accepted they were motivated by “genuine reasons” however, three received suspended sentences and twelve were handed community service.

Emerging from court on the 6th February, the Stansted 15 said that

“Justice will not be done until our convictions are overturned” and that terror laws should "never be misused in this way again". 

While the non-custodial sentence was welcomed, serious concerns remain as the 15 activists, who stood through a 10-week long trial, were found guilty under draconian terror-related legislation, the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act on 10th December 2018, an offence carrying a potential sentence of life imprisonment. The conviction was defined as a ‘crushing blow for human rights’. The 15 activists launched an appeal against the conviction. In an article, recalling their bitter experience through the trial, one of the Stansted 15 raised concerns over bias on the part of the trial judge against them which they believed affected the conviction. 

Lawyer Raj Chada who represent the 15 defendants said:

“While we are relieved that none of our clients face a custodial sentence, today is still a sad day for justice. Our clients prevented individuals being illegally removed from the UK and should never have been charged under counter terrorism legislation. We maintain that this was an abuse of power by the Attorney General and the CPS and will continue to fight in the appeal courts to get these wrongful convictions overturned.”

According to critics, the invoking of the anti-terror law in connection to a peaceful protest is unprecedented and disproportionate. In similar cases, those that had been charged were only convicted of ‘aggravated trespass’. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the activists received widespread solidarity, questioning the legitimacy of the court decision. The verdict has been interpreted as an attempt to silence dissent and discourage future questioning of the government’s migration policy.

On 6 February, United Nations human rights experts also urged the UK not to use security and terrorism-related legislation to prosecute peaceful protesters and condemned the use of "disproportionate charges" against them, saying: 

“We are concerned about the application of disproportional charges for what appears to be the exercise of the rights to peaceful and non-violent protest and freedom of expression. It appears that such charges were brought to deter others from taking similar peaceful direct action to defend human rights and in particular the protection of asylum seekers.” 

Furthermore, at the end of February 2019, the Stansted 15 activists were summoned back to court to stand for another trial, this time on the charge of ‘aggravated trespass’ over the same incident they had been convicted for.

A spokeswoman for the protesters said: “This latest threat of prosecution is cruel and vindictive”.

After a few days, the court apologised for the charges saying it was a mistake and that the "hearing in April will be cancelled”.

The lawyer representing the Stansted 15, Raj Chada commented:

“At least HMCTS have retracted and apologised to our clients. It doesn’t take away from the misery that our clients suffered over the weekend. More importantly, it is a temporary reprieve as the CPS are still continuing the case and want it hanging over our clients like the sword of Damocles – this is not in the public interest.”

The Stansted 15 were also concerned that as the charges of ‘aggravated trespass’ have not been formally dropped, it might be used as threat against them for another trial.

Broken promises and repeated delays by police to review disproportionate police response during anti-fracking protests 

Since 2017, UK police chiefs have repeatedly delayed and missed numerous deadlines to complete an official review of policing of anti-fracking protests, following frequent complaints of excessive force by the police against peaceful protesters demonstrating against fracking firms. In January 2017, the National Police Chiefs’ Council agreed to review the guidance issued to police forces on handling anti-fracking protests. A new date has been set for the review to be finished by “summer 2019 at the earliest” and the police review has reportedly been expanded to examine “long-term protest generally” as well as the anti-fracking demonstrations.

In a further attempt by the anti-fracking movement to expose police violence and mistreatment against activists during anti-fracking demonstrations, campaigners from Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire have set up a task force, on a web platform called Protest Justice. Local Complaints Coordinators will monitor and log incidents and will help campaigners make formal complaints about police violence at protests, with the support of the Network for Police Monitoring and Green and Black Cross, an independent grassroots project set up to support social and environmental struggles within the UK. 


Press freedom threatened by new anti-terrorism and security legislation 

On 12th February 2019, two problematic freedom of expression bills – the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill and the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill - were enacted, despite strong concerns by civil society, press freedom organisations and opposition parties. These groups argued that these two laws fall short of ensuring journalistic safeguards and may result in censorship and obstructing the investigative work of journalists.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, denounced the new legislative moves by the UK Government saying it has “repeatedly demonstrated its contempt for journalism and disregard for press freedom” through laws which “undermine and compromise the ability of journalists to carry out their work with integrity and in safety”.

  • The Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Act will enable police and prosecutors to more easily access electronic data held by overseas service providers – such as social media and email companies – where an international agreement is in place. Amendments to the bill added by Parliament on 30th January 2019 that guarantee journalists will be notified when their data is sought and giving them or their media organisation the opportunity to challenge the order in court, has been welcomed. However media freedom watchdogs still warn that there are other remaining concerns around media freedom. Rebecca Vincent, UK bureau director for Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres),told the media that "the addition of a notification for journalists was a minor improvement but that broader concerns remained". She further noted that: “It is worrying that so little attention was paid to the press freedom implications of the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Act, which threatens the ability of journalists to secure their data and guarantee source protection."
  • The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill contains some vague concepts and criminalises certain acts that can restrict freedom of expression. This includes criminalising the expression of an opinion or belief that is “supportive” of a proscribed (terrorist) organisation if done in a way that is “reckless” as to whether it encourages another person to support a proscribed organisation. It also makes it an offence to publish a photo or video clip of clothes or an item such as a flag in a way that raises “reasonable suspicion” (a low legal threshold) that the person doing so is a member or supporter of a terrorist organisation. Additionally, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, make it a crime to view terrorist material online or travel to an area designated as a terrorist threat to the UK, although it including some journalistic defences following lobbying by media rights groups. The law also raises concerns over the extended powers "allowing officers to stop, search and detain anyone at the UK border, without grounds for suspicion, to determine if they are a threat to national security". The act contains some safeguards for the press, but only in relation to “confidential” journalistic material.
  • Additionally, following an intense campaigning by humanitarian groups, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill also exempts aid workers from the clause that criminalises British nationals that enter or remain in designated countries and regions, considered as conflict zones. This has been recognised as “an important win for the NGO and humanitarian sector” which would “no longer have to fear being charged with a criminal offense for simply trying to do their jobs”, according to Rowan Popplewell, policy manager at Bond, which represents more than 400 U.K. aid organisations. However, concerns remain as peacebuilding had not been explicitly identified as an exemption from this clause and might restrict peacebuilding activities such as "bringing factions together for dialogue or engaging religious leaders" as this might not be covered by the humanitarian exemption.

The Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, in a submission to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee, dated 17th July 2018, said that the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security bill "runs the risk of criminalising a broad range of legitimate behaviour, including reporting by journalists, civil society organisations or human rights activists as well as academic and other research activity”.

The NGO, Index on Censorship’s Head of Advocacy Joy Hyvarinen also commented:

"The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act crosses a line that takes the law very close to prohibiting opinions.” 

In August 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor had reported that rights groups and the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism raised concerns about the implications of the bill for the protection of journalistic sources. In October 2018, nine organisations called on the House of Lords to amend the bill. Civil society found the amendments insufficient.

In September 2018, the Representative on Freedom of the Media, in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) also raised concerns regarding the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill saying that the definitions are too broad and that: "As it stands, the law could have an impact on the freedom of the media." and that "the provision has the potential to criminalise a too broad range of behaviour, and risks creating a chilling effect on journalistic freedom to report on the concerned organisation.” The OSCE further called for "strict and independent judicial oversight" of any new powers along with "adequate safeguards against their abuse.” 

Journalists targeted and harassed by pro-Brexit protesters 

Journalists in the UK are increasingly being targeted by pro-Brexit and far-right activist while covering protests. The trend is on the rise, according to Reporters without Borders UK’s Rebecca Vincent. For example, the Guardian newspaper columnist Owen Jones reported of being mobbed by pro-Brexit supporters during his speech at the People’s Assembly on 12th January 2019 and previously after doing an interview outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 7th January. In January 2019, there have been a number of additional reports of pro-Brexit protesters harassing journalists reporting from Westminster as well as politicians when giving interviews, as debates over Brexit heated up. 

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange arrest and possible extradition to the US raise concerns over setting up a "dangerous precedent" threatening journalist freedom 

In April 2019, the UK police arrested Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange had taken refuge since 2012. The arrest was made following decision by the Ecuadorian Government to revoke his political asylum. Assange was granted asylum to protect him from extradition to Sweden by the UK authorities where he faced charges, that were dropped and recently reopened, of sexual assault. This would have carried the risk of extradition to the US where he would have faced possible human rights violations. Just after his arrest in the UK, the US charged Assange with conspiring to hack into a secret Pentagon computer network, related to the leak of a vast number of US Government secret documents that were published on his Wikileaks website. The leaked secret documents include hundreds of thousands of material related to US war in Afghanistan and Iraq and documents from Guantánamo Bay detainee assessments, as well as US diplomatic cables - some of which reveal possible evidence of human rights violations. On 2nd May, the US started a procedure for Assange's extradition to the US. The US charges carries up to a maximum five-year prison sentence, but there at concerns that more serious charges could be added later on.

Currently, Assange has been jailed by the UK for 50 weeks since 1st May 2019 for breaking bail imposed seven years earlier by seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. UN experts have called for Julian Assange to be released from prison and criticised the British government for breaching his human rights.

The UN working group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) condemned the detention of Assange at Belmarsh prison, a high-security prison, calling the sentence imposed on Assange “disproportionate" and that his detention is a "further arbitrary deprivation of liberty". The WGAD further said that "this treatment appears to contravene the principles of necessity and proportionality envisaged by the human rights standards." Previously, in its 4th December 2015 Opinion, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, considered that Assange was arbitrarily detained by the Governments of Sweden and the UK and demanded his release, a demand also reiterated by the WGAD in December 2018.

The current arrest by UK and possible extradition to the US expose Assange to “the risk of serious human rights violations”, UN and human rights organisations warn.

In a statement on 5th April, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said that if extradited to the US, Mr. Assange could be exposed to “a real risk of serious violations of his human rights, including his freedom of expression, his right to a fair trial, and the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Additionally, Amnesty International called on the UK "not to extradite or send in any other manner Assange to the USA", reiterating concerns over facing possible "torture and other ill-treatment and an unfair trial followed by possible execution, due to his work with Wikileaks". Regarding the allegations of rape and other sexual violence against Julian Assange, Amnesty International called on the UKto "properly investigate in a way that respects the rights of both the complainants and the accused and be brought to justice if there is sufficient evidence against him".

For supporters of Assange, the case is emblematic of the restriction to media freedoms, with Assange's lawyer Jennifer Robinson insisting that the case "set a "dangerous precedent" where any journalist could face US charges for "publishing truthful information about the United States".