Human Rights Watch, an independent NGO, has called on the new UK government to scrap Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which, it says, has been abused by police officers, targeting in some instances photographers
In a 64-page report, Human Rights Watch calls Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 unnecessary and noneffective, as "despite almost 450,000 Section 44 stops and searches throughout the United Kingdom between April 2007 and April 2009, no one was successfully prosecuted for a terrorism offense as a result."
The human rights organisation has called on the new UK coalition government to repeal the "abusive counterterrorism power that has led to hundreds of thousands of people being stopped and searched without reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing."
While the government pledged on 10 June to review the powers, it has yet to do so, even after the European Court of Human Rights validated a 12 January ruling that found the powers to be illegal.
"The case for scrapping this stop-and-search power is overwhelming," says Benjamin Ward, Europe and Central Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "The benefits are dubious but the costs for human rights and community relations are easy to see."
According to the organisation, the use of the stop-and-search power "has ballooned since 2007. In England, Scotland, and Wales, the number of recorded stops rose almost sevenfold in just two years – from 37,000 in the year ending April 2007 to over 256,000 for the year ending April 2009."
It adds that the powers have been used improperly – including to stop railway enthusiasts, photographers, and even children on the street. "Stops of photographers have also proved controversial, with MPs supporting complaints from professional and amateur photographers (including tourists) that their cameras and images were confiscated," Ward writes in the report. "The high profile given to the complaints prompted a Home Office circular and letter to police forces from the Association of Chief Police Officers clarifying that the taking of photographs in public places should not give rise to section 44 searches, and that the power does not permit officers to confiscate equipment or images."
The report recommends the repeal of the section 44 power and calls for police in the UK to instead rely on stop-and-search powers that require reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Speaking to BJP, Ward says: "I think there is real momentum towards repeal following the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling, and the commitment of both parties in the coalition government to look at it. Having looked at this power in detail, our assessment is that it is not capable of reform, despite the efforts of the Met Police and BTP to scale back their use of it. We are optimistic that when it looks at the evidence the government will reach the same conclusion."
He adds that the use of Section 43, which requires reasonable suspicion, will be easier to challenge and bring the number of stop-and-searches down. "Anyone who is stopped under Section 43 will be able to challenge the stop, and the officer who carried out the stop will have to explain what factors led to the suspicion that justified the stop," he tells BJP. "Under Section 44, as long as the power is authorized for use at that particular place and time, an officer can stop anyone at all. No evidence is required to justify the stop, making it extremely difficult for the person stopped to prove that the stop was not carried out lawfully. That’s a key reason why we have seen hundreds of thousands of stops. [With Section 43] the officer will have provide some objective basis for carrying out the stop. Stop and search powers that require suspicion are not perfect. But they have the benefit of clarity and accountability."
To read the report, visit the Human Rights Watch website
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