In the Media

'We are all human beings, all needing one another'

PUBLISHED July 18, 2006

THIS WEEK there is fresh legal fall-out from the War on Terror: the CPS decision on whether to prosecute anyone after the death of Jean Charles de Menezes and, perhaps, too, the Court of Appeal judgment on the legality of control orders. Gareth Peirce is arguably more involved than any other lawyer with the issues raised by both: she is the solicitor for the de Menezes family, for the brothers Abul Kahar Kalam and Abul Koyair Kalam arrested in the Forest Gate raid and for several ex-Belmarsh detainees.

Peirce rarely gives interviews. Up close, she is modest, perhaps even shy. ?I don?t think profiling me is a good idea. Couldn?t you write about cases instead?? Michael Mansfield, a QC who has worked with her over the years, says: ?Gareth?s power is restrained presentation, while speaking from the heart with considerable passion. People really listen, compelled by her very personal stories.? 
In the Sixties, with Cheltenham Ladies? College and Oxford behind her, Peirce spent time in the US, where she was inspired by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. On returning to the UK, she studied at the LSE then qualified as a solicitor at the end of the Seventies ? her firm, Birnberg Peirce, operates from a small office in Camden Town; and by 1999, had achieved enough to be appointed CBE but did not feel able to accept the honour. Probably, the lifetime achievement award from her peers that she received last month meant far more to her. Personal detail ? such as why she dropped her first name, Jean, in favour of her middle name, Gareth ? is not up for discussion. But she is not at all shy when it comes to taking on and winning controversial cases such as the Guildford Four (in the film In the Name of the Father, Peirce was played by Emma Thompson) and the Birmingham Six.

Peirce sees links between the time of the IRA threats and the treatment of terrorist suspects today. Of the Forest Gate incident, she says: ?The police would not have entered the house of non-Muslims in that way, on the basis of a highly questionable tip-off which should have been subject to very detailed scrutiny. It?s like 30 years ago, when the police went into the houses of ordinary families, simply because they were Irish on the basis of suspicion, or the word of an informant. The experience of Muslims here is that they having to fight the same battles, even where a proper look at who they were, where they stood, and what the evidence properly sorted, would have led to the very opposite conclusion. But this time around, it?s part of an international alliance to hound ? in Tony Blair?s term: ?We will harry these people.?

?The shooting of de Menezes is precisely what happens when you have the mindset that there is a suspect community and you approach legislation ? and activity on the ground ? with that outlook. If, time after time, you abandon basic checks and balances, common sense and sound judgment in favour of predetermined views of what you think you?re going to get or find.

The news conference given by the brothers arrested in Forest Gate after their release without charge showed them to be ?two decent, hard-working citizens,? she says. ?It shone out. They deserved a police force that thought and investigated before it jumped. The police are very lucky that Kahar (who was shot in the shoulder) is alive.?

Another issue is that the raid ?took place on the basis of so-called evidence that has not seen the light of day, and will probably remain secret. That is exactly what?s been going on since the Government introduced the discredited Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 on the basis that things couldn?t be prosecuted in the normal way because the evidence was based on so-called intelligence.

?Former Belmarsh detainees and their families have struggled blindly to discover what led to suspicion. They still don?t know. They?ve watched each other as some have descended into madness. Three went from Belmarsh to Broadmoor. After the Lords ruled against the 2001 Act, they were placed under control orders, still on secret evidence. Then, they were locked up again for deportation.?

Peirce describes the two Belmarsh judgments by the Lords as ?heroic?. But for the detainees, she points out that one piece of legislation has just been jettisoned and another brought in. The men, after two ?important, robust? House of Lords? victories, are worse off than when they began the legal challenges.

?For anyone in any court in this country, expecting that they have a ticket to freedom by reason of the Human Rights Act, whatever rights are theoretically there, it?s a battle to the death to try and achieve recognition of those rights in practice. If the Government loses one decision, it brings in new legislation ? like control orders.

?It?s grim for individuals, who are told: ?We acknowledge you are a refugee, we?ve given you asylum because you've been tortured in Algeria or Jordan or Libya. However, the rules have changed. We are now entering into agreements with those countries which will allow us to send you back there.?

?Less than a year ago, this Government said they (the detainees) could never be deported because of the risk of torture. The Government has moved the goalposts for the group that it wishes to hound and harry.There is a complete failure to engage intelligently with the Muslim community.?

And the line between subjective empathy and dispassionate legal advice? ?I don?t think there is a line to be drawn,? retorts Peirce. ?We?re all human beings, needing each other, getting to know each other, fighting the same battle to try to bring an end to the injustice that is being perpetrated. The cases that haunt us all are the ones where we fail.?

A fuller version of this article appears in the July issue of Independent Lawyer magazine