Bill Carmichael: Welcome to British justice, Iranian style

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WE learned this week that a senior Old Bailey judge had decreed that an entire terrorism trial should be heard in secret.

The two defendants, known only as AB and CD, were to remain anonymous and all the evidence was to be heard “in camera”.

So draconian were the restrictions that media organisations were originally banned from even mentioning that a trial was taking place. We only know about it now because the media challenged the secrecy order in court.

If this doesn’t alarm you, then you are not paying sufficient attention. Secret trials are the sort of thing that happens in dictatorships such as Iran and China – not in Western democracies like the UK.

The ruling, if allowed to stand, threatens to break the principle that can be traced to the Magna Carta in 1215 that justice in this country is not only done, but seen to be done. Open justice is an absolutely essential plank of our liberties.

Of course, there are occasions when judges rule that certain parts of court proceedings cannot be reported, either to prevent the jury becoming prejudiced against the defendant and thereby threatening a fair trial, or for reasons of national security.

There may also be times when the identity of witnesses needs to be protected – for example when members of the security services are giving evidence in terrorism trials.

But this would be the first time in recorded legal history that an entire trial is held in secret.

In the Court of Appeal this week Anthony Hudson, representing the media groups, said the orders “mark such a significant departure from the principle of open justice that they are inconsistent with the rule of law and democratic accountability”.

The appeal judges are expected to give their decision on whether to uphold the secrecy orders in the next few days.

This latest case illustrates the growing obsession with secrecy shown by the activist judges who run our legal system. Emboldened by the Leveson inquiry and the increasing restrictions on freedom of the Press, they think they can simply make it up as they go along.

We already have secrecy in family courts, civil cases and in numerous super injunctions designed to save bed-hopping celebrities from embarrassment.

In the latter case, m’learned friends, stuck as they are in the early years of the last century, haven’t quite twigged that such injunctions are completely useless in the age of the internet and social media.

Unlike the antics of libidinous celebs, national security is vitally important and should be treated with due gravity, but secret trials are a step too far. If the judges get away with it this time, who knows how many more we will see in the future?

As Mr Hudson told the appeal court: “National security cannot be pursued without regard of the values of society that it is trying to protect.”

Deal Obama out

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time; US President Barack Obama cuts a deal with the Taliban to free a US soldier held in Afghanistan in exchange for freeing five terrorists from Guantanamo Bay.

Obama, never exactly lacking when it comes to self-esteem, basks in the glory of bringing home an American hero while the whole country breaks out in a chorus of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree”. What a public relations masterstroke!

Except it hasn’t quite turned out like that. Not for the first time the Obama administration hasn’t done its homework. It seems that far from being a hero, Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier held by the Taliban for the last five years, is an anti-American oddball who deserted his post and is despised by his former comrades as a traitor.

To make matters worse, it appears Obama broke US law by failing to give Congress 30-days’ notice of the release or transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

Now the administration is struggling to contain the political fallout from this disaster and the homecoming party in Bergdahl’s home town in Idaho has been abruptly cancelled.

Obama staggers from one disaster to the next – Obamacare, Iran, Syria, Benghazi, Ukraine and now Bergdahl. I suspect that for the American people – and probably for Obama himself – the presidential election in 2016 can’t come soon enough.