an arresting sight
Whatever the reasons for arresting student Sajid Badat in a dawn raid on his parents' Gloucester home on 27 November 2003, the manner in which it was carried out suggests that the authorities are losing all sense of proportion.
Twenty-six armed police units of the Gloucestershire Constabulary were deployed to arrest Badat and to seal off three roads in the city centre; 119 residential homes were evacuated during the searches, which apparently uncovered a 'small amount' of explosives.
If, as has been claimed, Badat had been under close surveillance by Special Branch officers for about a year, why were so many resources required? The manner of the arrest suggests that the authorities knew little about the kind of person they might encounter, what he may or may not have had inside the house, and above all their own capabilities in safely arresting him.
Police press officer Kate Nelmes explained that 'our primary concern was for public safety'. Martin Baker, deputy chief constable of Gloucestershire Police, also said that 'public safety is our first consideration'. Such a risk-averse outlook is now endemic among those charged with maintaining law and order, as exposed earlier this year in the Metropolitan Police's two-week siege at a house in Hackney (see London's safe siege, by Jennie Bristow). Of course, police ought to be concerned about public safety, but what happens when that is prioritised to such an extent that it stands in the way of arresting someone? Whether such an approach makes the public any safer is a moot point.
Home secretary David Blunkett waded in with some ill-measured comments over the arrest of Badat. These can no longer be repeated, in case they prejudice any possible future trial. But without regard to issues of culpability, the fact that Blunkett suggested that one individual could be a threat to the life and liberty of the country raises some awkward questions. What kind of individual can threaten 60million people? Or more importantly, what kind of country can feel so threatened by the actions of one person?
What's more, the kind of language used by Blunkett would in the future allow him to declare a national emergency and assume special powers according to the government's draft Civil Contingencies Bill - which, coincidentally, was being reported on that very same day by a joint committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons.
Together with the associated detention of a 33-year-old man in Birmingham, and of a 39-year-old man in Manchester as part of a separate investigation (both of whom were later released without charge), Badat's arrest brought to 481 the number of people arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 since 11 September 2001. The number has since passed 500; only 73 of whom, or 1 in 7, have had any kind of charge brought against them, let alone a successful prosecution.
The trend is now to make numerous arrests, before releasing the suspects without charge. Notably, the famous 'ricin factory' story that dominated the news headlines in autumn 2002 did not lead to any successful convictions, as scientists from Porton Down were subsequently unable to confirm the existence of ricin on the premises (1). Across Europe there has been a similar pattern - where young men, mostly of Arab, Asian or North African origin, are held and then released.
In France, an individual was arrested for having a cache of arms; it later transpired that the cache had been planted by his enemies with a view to provoking just such an arrest. As the intelligence net is cast wider and wider, rumour, bravado and general chatter, as well as knowing someone who knows someone in al-Qaeda, are seen as sufficient justification for close monitoring and possibly arrest.
Unsurprisingly, the arrests have generated much press interest. Deputy chief constable Martin Baker remarked: 'There's an awful lot of wild speculation in the papers this morning, very little, if any of which, has come from the police. As far as I'm aware there have been no statements from the police, either the Metropolitan Police or the Gloucestershire Constabulary, that would substantiate any of the speculation in the papers this morning so it's important that we keep a very level head about this.'
But what did he expect, considering the manner in which the arrests took place? This looks like little more than blame-shifting for the ensuing furore - a trick that Baker may have learned from Blunkett, who claimed that his comments had merely been an interpretation of what the police's actions meant, considering they had made use of terrorism legislation.
As for maintaining a balance between staying alert and becoming alarmed - two Gloucester residents interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme the morning after the raid reported being shocked at the revelation that their neighbour might be involved with al-Qaeda, and claimed to feel very, very scared. Job well done, then?