Like many of its sport-obsessed counterparts across the globe, England is currently undergoing a periodic bout of anguished soul-searching, occasioned by the quadrennial phenomenon that is the football World Cup. Every grimace of the players is parsed for deeper insight into their athletic motivation, and complex conspiracy theories regarding the referees’ alleged prejudices travel like wildfire. It is voluntary, collective madness of the most collegial kind, affecting both the public and the press.
While the timing is surely coincidental, the obsessive media coverage of the World Cup is providing the British government with a welcome respite from what might otherwise be a controversial news story, namely its recent attempt to hold the United Kingdom’s (UK) first ever secret criminal trial. Earlier this year, prosecutors convinced a judge that the trial — relating to accusations of terrorism — should be held in closed court, that the defendants should remain completely anonymous and that the media should be barred from reporting that it was even taking place. News organisations filed various legal appeals against this assault on the dearly held democratic values of freedom of expression and open justice. The trial has now been postponed, and some limited concessions have been made to the press while waiting for the court to reach its final judgments on the merits of the appeal. Yet it is shocking that such severe infringements on both the defendants’ and reporters’ rights were being seriously considered in the first place.
The United Kingdom is understandably fanatical about preventing and prosecuting terrorist acts, which it has been dealing with for, at least, 400 years since Guy Fawkes attempted to blow-up Parliament. The ninth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings will take place in July, and there are persistent rumours of British-born Muslims joining the fight in Syria and Iraq. Many Western countries are constantly undergoing an uncomfortable balancing act between the interests of democracy and national security. And yet, the British government seems to have set a course that is completely against their own self-interest, much less that of their citizens. This is just another example of an ill-thought-out, reactionary policy that will eventually be overturned, but not without wasting a lot of time and resources in its defence.
Secret trials would be a disaster for everyone involved, as the UK’s wayward younger brother, the United States, has discovered to its dismay. More than 12 years after the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay opened and more than six years after first attempting to bring the self-admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) — to justice, the US is mired in legal quicksand. The military commissions attempting to pass judgement on KSM and his co-defendants are still dealing with administrative pre-trial motions. Many of the remaining 149 inmates are either involved in protracted judicial proceedings, on hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention, or the subject of secret prisoner swaps with the Taliban, all of which bring the United States nothing but headaches and international condemnation.
The path to secret justice is even more fraught for the UK, which never seems more like a small island nation of waning international influence than when it attempts to curtail rights. The UK’s ever-tenuous membership in the European Union gives the accused an extra level of protection, as does the domestic Human Rights Act. Even if Her Majesty’s Government did manage to try and convict the defendants in secret, the resulting legal challenges would hold up any sentencing for years, thus robbing British citizens of the satisfying retribution that the justice system is supposed to provide. It is a losing proposition all around.
If recent history is any guide, England’s chances in the World Cup are middling at best. It’s possible that its loyal fans deserve a better team than the one they have. However, it’s undeniable that British citizens deserve more than secret courts. Once collective football madness lifts, perhaps the government will realise this as well.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2014.