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Quick Retribution in London Threatens Due Process for Thousands

Saturday, 13 August 2011 07:41 By Bryan Gerhart, Colorlines | News Analysis
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As some Londoners exhale during a lull in the riots that have raged throughout the United Kingdom since Saturday night, others, particularly young Britons of color, face the hasty, heavy hand of the law. Whether the seemingly impulsive punishments continually doled out by British magistrates represent justice remains open for debate.

Amidst intense public pressure, over 16,000 police officers are now on the streets of London. They’ve made more than 1,700 arrests, according to news reports, for looting, arson, vandalism and violence since the riots began, employing a variety of sweeping methods, including raids of low-income housing projects. A majority of those arrested are minors, many of whom are being identified with footage from Britain’s extensive network of CCTV cameras.

Thus far, 600 people have been charged, most within hours of their arrest. The number of arrests is rising at such a high rate that prisons and juvenile detention centers are running out of cells and beds to provide to their inmates, according to the Guardian newspaper. This hurried discipline seems to undermine due process of law, but with citizens and government officials calling for harsh comeuppance for the violent protesters, guarantees of fair judgement in individual cases appear to be irrelevant. Prime Minister David Cameron brazenly declared that “phony concerns about human rights” won’t slow down the process, and from the looks of things, he means it.

An unnamed English magistrate addressed this fast and furious legal response in The Guardian Thursday, writing:

“This week’s riots have been so shocking that normally level-headed people start to see due process of law as an encumbrance to justice. The reverse is true—due process is fundamental to justice, even for the unprepossessing and the downright nasty offender.”

Echoing the anonymous magistrate’s sentiment, Larry Elliot, The Guardian’s economics editor and part-time magistrate wrote:

From the bench, what magistrates see is a raging bundle of id impulses, the desire for immediate gratification untempered by a sense of guilt and with only an ill-formed notion of right and wrong. The temptation to bang them up and throw away the key is strong, and magistrates will no doubt be encouraged to do just that over the coming weeks. It is, though, not the way the courts work, and a good thing too.

Despite the British government considering shutting down social media websites and Blackberry messaging services, which they believe played a major role in spreading news of the unrest to participants, the Greater Manchester Police (GMP) department is using Twitter to announce the prosecutions of rioters. Additionally, they’ve begun using Flickr to post pictures of suspects in hopes that citizens will do the identification work for them. The GMP website produly announces how many alleged criminals they’ve arrested and charged along with the brief statement, “If you were involved, we will find you.”


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