Battle in the Westminster parliament
Civil liberties prevail over scare-mongering
Tanim Hussain Shawon
MPs of the Westminster Parliament saved their country on 9 November 2005 from becoming the gallows of its long-cherished civil liberties. While 'yet-to-be-democratic-proper' countries like Bangladesh have always been criticised by the western democracies for retaining draconian special power laws (the Special Powers Act 1974, as in the case of Bangladesh), the Great Britain was just about to join that class.
Following the July 7 bombing incidents in London this year, one of the first concerns aired by the civil liberty movements was that the establishment would take this opportunity to impose even harsher anti-terrorism laws in the country. It would be a particularly lucrative opportunity for the government to gain some easy support and popularity given the overwhelming concern of the people at large about the security situation, and a temptation to make the country air-tight from any further terrorist-strike. The police also made an unprecedented move by openly expressing its intention to influence the government to increase its power for detaining terrorist-suspects for as long as 90 days without any charge. The way the police and the government took up their case together and attempted to exert a direct pressure on the legislature has been particularly criticised by the media and political analysts.
In spite of all the desperations on the part of the government and the police, the long-standing civil liberties have prevailed over the scare-mongering campaign, thanks to the strength of parliamentary democracy of Westminster. Tony Blair lost his first vote in the Parliament since being elected the Prime Minister, 49 of his own MPs voting against the proposal. It may be pertinent to mention that, unlike the anti-floor-crossing provisions in the Constitution of Bangladesh (Article 70), Members of the Westminster Parliament are at full liberty to decide their own mind regarding any motion tabled in the Parliament and ignore or defy party whips on that. The MPs voting against the proposal for increasing the existing 14-day limit for detention of suspected terrorists to a staggering 90 days (which is equivalent to a 6-month imprisonment under English penal law) put forward cogent arguments against the government claims. They reminded the government that they were not obliged in any way to go by the recommendation of the police and that contrarily it was their particular obligation to weigh all proposed measures against the concerns for the civil liberties of the citizens and strike the right balance between the two.
They also said that the government and the police failed to show to the Parliament why it was necessary to detain a suspect for as long as 90 days without charge when there was not a single precedence where the police had to wait for that long a period to charge anyone. Although, the hypothetical case put forward by government found support with majority of the ordinary people (one pole suggesting 72% of them supported government proposal), it failed miserably the rigorous test on the floor of the Parliament. However, the legislators eventually increased the existing limit to a two-fold twenty eight day period, which to some civil liberty activists was still too harsh.
While it is a shame in the first place that the government of the United Kingdom did at all intend such a draconian law to be passed, it is equally reassuring to see that the legislators of the great Parliament in Westminster are still guided by their consideration of the larger welfare of the society. In the context of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh, the legislators' constitutional obligation to blindly follow the party line in the Parliament may be reconsidered so that they can decide according to their own conscience when the nation may need them to do so.
Tanim Hussain Shawon, LLM (Dhaka) is presently studying under the University of London.