Saturday, January 10, 2015

What do ‘habeas corpus’ and ‘hypocrisy’ have in common? They both begin with an ‘h’. Or why in ‘the land of the free’ Shaker Aamer still doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being released after 13 years however many general elections David Cameron wants to win (though I’d dearly love to be proved wrong)

All last week one of our media saints, Melvyn Bragg, broadcast a daily 30-minute programme examining Magna Carta, which English barons presented to King John in 1215 and made him sign. By every account John was a rotten king - two-faced, inefficient, inept and unjust - and the barons had had enough. But it would not just be wrong but utterly ridiculous to interpret the insistence of the barons that John’s powers should be curtailed as ‘a blow for the common man’.

It was nothing of the kind, although ‘the common man’ did over the centuries come to benefit from various demands in the Magna Carta. (Incidentally, we are all, unfortunately, today members of the genus homo communis, despite eye-wateringly expensive private education, ‘posh’ accents and a superior manner - in fact, I have a rule of thumb: the ‘posher’ the accent, the more likely you are to be dealing with a nine-bob note (US nine-dollar bill, though I’m sure you guessed that).

As far as the barons were concerned they were doing nothing but strike a blow for ‘the common baron’ and protecting their own interests. For example, one of their demands was that there should be far fewer ‘fish weirs’ along the Thames. Come again? Well, it seems those operating those fish weirs were actually using them to halt Thames river traffic - goods being shipped to the markets in London - and charge a toll.

These days, I should imagine no one gives a stuff about ‘fish weirs’. In fact, I don’t doubt that there exists a heritage society which cares ‘passionately’ about fish weirs and is working tirelessly to protect for posterity and future generations whatever ‘fish weirs’ still operate. (Expect a full-blown rant from me in this ’ere blog about our heritage industry in the coming months. I always think it is a symptom of the decline of a civilisation when instead of looking to the future, it almost neurotically looks back to the past and is desperate to preserve as much of that pas as possible.)

There were other demands made by the barons at Runymede 1215 which are similarly irrelevant to today’s 2015 digitally aware folk, but there is one demand which is always trotted out which is still relevant to us today and is the cornerstone of any half-decent legal system: that the king - for which read the ‘authorities’ - should always observe the principle of habeas corpus.

If the Magna Carta (and I suspect it is more correctly not ‘the’ Magna Carta but simply Magna Carta - would some pedant or other reading this confirm?) is remembered for anything, it is remembered for its insistence that the principle of habeas corpus should be observed. Actually, as far as I know it is remembered for very little else. Habeas corpus was spelled out in Magna Carta (‘the’ optional): no one could be imprisoned or otherwise detained against his will be the king. If someone is held, a charge must be laid against him and in due course he must face trial before a jury of his peers.

Well, ‘his peers’ were in those days his fellow barons - to be honest and to the dismay of idealists the world over, they gave as much of a flying fuck for the welfare of the ‘common man’ as did King John, which is to say none whatsoever. They were simply concerned with their own welfare and making sure that none of their number ended up in the dungeons operated by John’s henchmen. But over

 the years the principle of habeas corpus was established, and broadly the democratic health (though why do I feel the need to put quote marks around the word ‘democratic’?) of states the world over can be gauged by how well they observe the principle.

The Brits, rather smugly it has to be said, often point out that its parliament became the template of parliaments around the world and its justice system was also widely adopted, not least in the United States. Certainly the US also likes to feel it conscientiously observes the principle of habeas corpus and if forever banging the drum about being ‘the land of the free’.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. It would, for example, be both interesting and enlightening to hear the views of those banged up in the Guantanamo Bay facility what their views are just how well the US adheres to the principle of habeas corpus. I’m sure their views would make interesting reading. As it is, of course, we won’t even get to hear their views: to all intents and purposes they have been locked up and the key to their cells has - metaphorically - been thrown away.

But I am retreading old ground. What I have just written has been said and written 1,000 before and much good it has done the Guantanamo inmates, though that notwithstanding, I cannot resist the temptation to add that unless and until each inmate there is charged and given a fair trial, the United States can stick its proud ‘land of the free’ ‘we want to introduce democracy to Middle Eastern nations’ bollocks right up its arse.

I am often inclined to believe that of all the sins mankind is capable of committing, the sin of hypocrisy is pretty much down there with the very worst. (Incidentally, a measure of just how cynical the Yankee administrations are - including that of St Barack Obama - the reason the inmates are held at Guantanamo Bay and not on sovereign US soil so that the administrations can ‘legitimately’ claim they are not a covered by the US legal system. Fuckwits, eh?

This entry is not, however, a general rant about Guantanamo - you might as well petition the Sun to rise in the West for a change for all the good protesting about Guantanamo would achieve. I want to be more specific: one of those held is a certain Shaker Aamer, and he has been banged up now for the past 13 years. Now, Aamer is not actually a British citizen but a Saudi citizen. But he is classed as a British resident and has a wife and four children living in Britain.

Naturally, the fact that he is ‘not British’ has been jumped upon by all the wiseacres who innocently ask ‘so why should Britain get so uptight about him?’ To that I would reply that although he is not de jure British, he is most certainly de facto British.

The news this morning is that David Cameron, who is off to schmooze with St Barack in the next few days (er, we have a General Election coming up which Cameron naturally would like to win being seen swanning around the White House is apt to impress the more impressionable and might be worth a vote or two).

While there he will be pleading Aamer’s case with the president - or, better his press wallahs have let it be known that he will be pleading with St Barack to have Aamer released. Although the two words ‘habeas corpus’ won’t necessarily be used - using them might embarrass St Barack too much and prove to be counterproductive - they are at the basis of what the matter of Aamer and the rest of the inmates is all about: shouldn’t both he and the rest of them be charged and face a fair trial if they are thought to be guilty of some crime?

So will Cameron return to these shores with the news that St Barack, who has the power, has granted Aamer a presidential pardon and released him? Don’t hold your breath. Or to reflect the mood I am in when considering the hypocrisy involved in the whole Guantanamo saga: don’t hold your fucking breath.

It does occur to me that St Barack, who would certainly prefer to see a Conservative-led government in Britain than one led by Labour, might do actually do the deed and Cameron could return to Britain with a trophy: one freed Shaker Aamer. I doubt it will happen, but if it were to it would have

very little indeed to do with insisting upon the principle of habeas corpus - that no man should be imprisoned at the whim of the king - and everything do with the snivelling hypocrisy with which the whole affair is shot through.

By the way, some relative figures: in China 172 adults are incarcerated per 100,000 of the population. In the United States it is 707, more than four times as many. In Iran it is 284 per 100,000 people, in Saudi Arabia it’s 162, in Russia 470. Oh, and by race the figures for the US are that per 100,000 of the population 380 of them are white, 966 Latino - and 2,207 black.

Read into those figures what you will. I know what I do.

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