The whereabouts of Ibrahim Magag are causing concern. The 28-year-old hasn’t been seen at home since Boxing Day, and though that might ordinarily be the business of no one but his wife and kids, his absence has set off a police manhunt and exposed him to the risk of five years in jail.
Magag isn’t a defendant awaiting trial or a convict due to be sentenced. His brush with the law has arisen because he is one of ten people on whom the home secretary, Theresa May, has served a notice under the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011. Although it is impossible to be sure what the TPIM notice said – its contents are not a matter of public record – it seems to have asserted May’s belief that Magag, who was born in Somalia, was linked to the extremist organisation al-Shabaab. That belief entitled her to impose restrictions on his liberty, including a curfew, and he is a fugitive only because of his apparent breach of those restrictions. In other words, Magag stands to be criminalised because the home secretary suspects him of criminality.
Anyone who believes that punishment should depend on proof beyond reasonable doubt will think that harsh. The Opposition, though, takes a different view. The only criticism Labour’s front bench have ever levelled against TPIMs is that they are unduly lenient. Senior Labour MPs hanker instead for the older and more draconian system that they replaced: the control order regime instituted by Tony Blair’s government in 2005.
Whereas TPIM notices expire after a maximum of two years, control orders were indefinite, and they also allowed for far more stringent restrictions on suspects’ access to telephones and the internet. Home secretaries issuing control orders were also able to relocate suspected terrorists to any part of the UK against their will. They did so in 23 cases – almost half the total – and Magag himself was forcibly removed from London to the West Country. According to the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, it is the Coalition’s repeal of that power in December 2011 that probably does most to explain Magag’s disappearance. Theresa May must explain, she thinks, ‘whether her decision to return [sic] him to London and to weaken legislation has made it easier for him to abscond’. The Labour MP Pat McFadden, too, warned Radio 4 listeners that the government’s grant of ‘more freedoms’ to terror suspects is both ‘complacent and dangerous’.
In fact, the real complacency and danger arises from the instinctive authoritarianism of people like Cooper and McFadden. In the name of combating extremism, this country already penalises a broad range of suspicious behaviour that falls short of actual violence, ranging from dodgy financial dealings to the making of statements that ‘glorify’ terrorism. With legal options that extensive, preventive infringements on people’s freedom ought not only to be exceptional; they should be impermissible unless prosecutions are likely to follow. And once it becomes obvious that charges would not be justified – because there is insufficient evidence – the state has no business restricting a suspect’s liberty at all.
Labour’s exploitation of popular fears to rubbish the government’s supposed softness on terrorism is deeply cynical. No one else subject to a TPIM notice has ever absconded (compared to seven of 52 control order recipients), and not even the police are worried that Magag represents a serious threat to the general public; their primary concern is that he might leave the country. (Absent evidence of a specific criminal intent, incidentally, it’s not self-evident why he shouldn’t be allowed to do just that.) It is shameful that the Labour Party has become so vocal a proponent of incommunicado house arrest and internal exile.