Living under a control order
June 26, 2008 — Comment
Written by IRR News Team
Below, we reproduce the speech made by Cerie Bullivant* on living under control orders at the launch of ‘Captivated: Art of the Interned’.
‘When I was first asked to do this event, I thought it’s the least I can do to raise awareness of those untold stories of persecution in the name of the “War on Terror”. People held in our harshest prisons for months or even years with little or no evidence against them. Trapped within an ongoing legal nightmare that is designed, so that its almost impossible to prove one’s innocence; caught within oppressive legal anomalies, such as SIAC and Control Orders, which ruin the lives of their victims leaving them lost and helpless, seeing no end to their ordeal, often resulting in mental illnesses and other long-term problems. These terribly punitive measures affect not only those named in court and held in prison, but also their families – their wives, children and parents, whose daily lives must bear the burden of these practical infringements as well as, and less obviously, the isolation and alienation from within their own community.
You may be thinking that this sounds a little melodramatic, but I say this as someone who has been through the Control Order system, as someone who has had the last two years of my life dismantled by these very laws. For me this all began with the decision to go to Syria and learn Arabic. I had hoped to study in Damascus and work with the underprivileged children, orphans and the needy. To this end I had studied TEFL [Teaching English as a Foreign Language] and had footballs and toys in my suitcase. However, it was not to be, as the security services “assessed” that I had planned to go on to Iraq to fight alongside the insurgency. To this day, neither I, nor my solicitors know fully why this accusation was made and what the so-called evidence was behind the allegation. We have seen bits and pieces – crumbs of information. Yet the prosecution admitted that this information was not the basis of their case. That was and still is secret evidence. Nevertheless, shortly after my planned trip was stopped, I was placed under a Control Order which forced certain conditions on me which, if breached, would be a criminal offence, liable to up to five years in prison. At the beginning my conditions were: to sign in everyday between 9am and 11am at a local police station; to allow police searches of my property at any time; forced residence at a single address. I was barred from any port or airport, including international train stations, and I had to surrender my passport.
Later, much harsher conditions were, added including curfews, electronic tagging and phone checks upon entering and leaving my home. Yet my conditions were still amongst the most relaxed. The majority of Control Orders require authorisation of visitors to the residence by the Home Office, and include a ban on accessing the internet and even owning a mobile phone. What makes these orders so useful to the government is that while the conditions do not seem overburdening, they affect and dominate every sphere of your life. For my part, the order was always on my mind, be it worrying that I might be arrested for being a few minutes late or waking up in a panic in the morning thinking that the police were at the door.
When I stood trial [for breaching the conditions of the Control Order] there were two counts regarding a stay with my mother while she was ill – suddenly staying with my mum was a terrorism offence! This is typical of the petty way in which the Home Office would approach every decision, like forcing me to sign at a station that was farther from my home and awkward to reach and then arresting me for being a few minutes late. It was these constant worries and pressures that led to me suffering from severe reactive depression as a direct result of the control order. This was diagnosed by three doctors one of whom was Home Office appointed, and it was these extreme conditions that led to my absconding. The order had made living any kind of ordinary life impossible; it had, and still has, stopped me from pursuing a career in nursing. I could not maintain a relationship with my then wife due to the stresses from the order and intrusions from police, and even my mother’s health became much worse as a result of the stress from the order.
The decision to abscond was born of the immense pressure placed on me by the Home Office and not knowing why I was on the order and not seeing any way to defend myself with no evidence levelled against me. It was a decision born in a single moment after a year’s torment and one that led to me spending six months in Belmarsh prison upon my voluntary return. Prison is tough at the best of times, let alone when you are held with no evidence and accused of being involved in terrorism. In prison, it is the small things that get you through the days – a letter from a friend or a visit from a family member, the support of those held in similar situations. Yet in Belmarsh there [appears to be] a two tier system of rules – one for the Muslim prisoners and another for the rest of the population. Other prisoners would congregate five or six to a cell chatting and playing cards but when, in Ramadan, I was seen praying in my cell with one other inmate we were severely reprimanded and lost our social time for that day. I could go on. Being locked up at night with serious criminals when your crime is not even known to you, when all your life you have tried to be the best person that you could be, is horrifying. I was locked up with drug dealers and even two people standing trial for double murder, yet I was seen as more dangerous, more subversive.
I was preparing to stand trial for a terrorism offence in which I would not be allowed to question the rights and wrongs, where I could potentially be convicted as a terrorist with absolutely no evidence of any such involvement. All the jury would be asked was: did I breach any condition of my order. It is only by the will of God and the sterling work of my brilliant legal team that justice was upheld, and a jury of my peers found that, given the stresses I was under, absconding was legitimate and reasonable. In fact, after that verdict, I was immediately put on a much more restrictive Control Order. I wasn’t even allowed to walk out of the Old Bailey a free man. Within a month of being found not guilty, I had my day at the High Court where, after we were excluded from more than half of the proceedings, the judge accepted that there were no reasonable grounds for suspecting my involvement in terrorism. I say again, there were no reasonable grounds for suspicion, with the burden of proof so low and being allowed secret evidence there was still no reasonable grounds for any suspicion. For two years my life had been ruined. I’m still dealing with the after effects of this whole fiasco. Because of biased media coverage, very few people are even aware I was cleared the police are still being vindictive, and I still have difficulties with my health.
I may have managed to prove my innocence, yet there are many more people still going though these impossibly unfair systems. These are the people that need our help, our support – that’s you, me, and everybody here; don’t allow yourself to be disempowered. To demonise any group within society has never been conducive to resolving disputes. Fear only begets fear. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently said in an interview that he felt Britain was in a very punitive state of mind at the moment. I couldn’t agree more and nowhere, is it more true than in the new anti-terror legislation, especially in light of last weeks vote on 42-day detention. However I feel that rather than fighting terrorism, this approach to justice is far more likely to alienate young Muslims. Thank you for your time!’
Read an IRR News Story on: The beauty of the art of the interned
Captivated: Art of the Interned: Exhibition details
*Cerie Bullivant, a convert to Islam, was placed under a control order in 2006 and in May 2007 absconded in a 'moment of madness' and after four weeks on the run handed himself in to police and was detained at Belmarsh maximum secure prison. He was tried for breaching his Control Order at the Old Bailey and cleared, another more restrictive Control Order followed. However, in January 2008 a High Court judge quashed the Control Order, ruling that the Home Secretary no longer had reasonable grounds for suspicion.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.