Sunday 16 October 2011

A defence of the Rule of Law (not dissident Republicanism)

Just because someone may be accused, or even convicted, of a heinous crime does not render him undeserving of legal counsel. The law functions to uphold justice and lawyers facilitate access to that justice. It is essential that the system convicts guilty offenders and treats them accordingly. However, in order to establish guilt, lawyers must debate the admissible evidence before a judge. The integrity of the court is vital to this procedure, and only with cogent discussion can legal proof be established. Otherwise, there is the risk of miscarriage of justice.

Colin Duffy is on remand in HMP Maghaberry, charged with the murder of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar in March 2009. His family claims that it has been subjected to abuse as the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for years. It believes that it has been systematically harassed by police officers in the region, by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and now of the PSNI. The political party, éirigí, has campaigned on this issue with assistance from Pádraigín Drinan.

The guilt of an individual before the law is indeterminable until a trial or hearing has ended. The lawyers conducting the case must act professionally and fairly in espousing their respective arguments. Just as lawyers must treat their clients indiscriminately, so too must the State treat individuals over which it has jurisdiction without discrimination. In instances of State brutality, the integrity of government agents is itself damaged.

Regardless of what he is charged with, or what he may eventually be convicted of, Colin Duffy should not be treated inhumanely. Degradation of the nature experienced by hundreds detained in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Kenya and Guantánamo Bay is wrong. It is wrong on many levels.

The principle reason that such treatment is wrong is the existence of the Rule of Law. This is the concept that certain things are fair and right. It upholds a system of justice prioritising the dignity of the person and fairness in the administration of the law.

Second, State brutality breeds resistance. It can be seen in reactions to the many examples of Metropolitan Police actions (most recently, the death of Mark Duggan). Unless individuals view the government as fair, they will obey the laws of the State with reluctance. Particularly in situations of oppression – familiar to Britain’s imperial history – violence begets violence. Whether committed by native rebels or by colonial/governmental forces, human nature ensures a cycle of violence.

Third, the United Kingdom today has legal obligations. Internationally-binding treaties require the State to uphold certain standards of human rights and civil liberty. This is widely known and is often taken for granted.

Fourth, for the State to act in this way towards individuals in its custody is an abuse of power. Just as a prisoner may have broken the laws of the land, so does the State in mistreating that prisoner. The State cannot expect to be respected while treating individuals in this way. Capital Punishment is wrong for the same reason.

Thus, regardless of what someone has done, it is not the State’s role to punish arbitrarily. It is the Rule of Law, as exercised by the judiciary, that dictates how someone should be punished. Even if Colin Duffy did murder members of the British army or the PSNI, the allegations surrounding the conditions of his detention, if true, are disgraceful. To protect his human rights is not to support his cause; it is to defend the Rule of Law.

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