Editor note : Article published first on July 24,2017 on Al-Mariam blog
I cut my “legal teeth” nearly four decades ago pouring over the Magna Carta, Blackstone’s “Commentaries” and Edward Coke’s legal treatises on the primacy of common law principles and the rule of law. Coke enunciated the principle of judicial review (and supremacy) in Bonham’s Case declaring, “when an act of parliament is against common right or reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it and adjudge such act to be void.” Blackstone later described the power of Parliament to make laws in England as absolute and without control. Judicial review today is the linchpin of American democracy as President Donald Trump has learned.
More recently, I took great pride in celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta on my campus with my students (arguably the only celebration of its kind on any American campus in 2015). It was an honor to have my commentary, “A Magna Carta for Ethiopia” posted on the official website of the 800th Magna Carta Committee.
For nearly three decades, I have taught my course on civil liberties and free speech by requiring my students to read John Milton’s tract Areopagitica, “for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England”, arguably the most influential and impassioned philosophical defences of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression.
I have always had the highest regard for British jurisprudence in the historical context. I have not had the opportunity to study contemporary English law.
I began to doubt my fascination with British law when I recently became aware of “terrorism” allegations against Tadesse Biru Kersmo, an Ethiopian dissident living in the U.K. Kersmo was charged in several counts with violation of section 58 of the U.K. “Terrorism Act 2000”.
According to one report, the charges against Kersmo include allegedly possessing documents and materials “deemed to be useful for committing or preparing to commit terrorist acts” and publications “about security and intelligence, urban guerrilla warfare tactics and sniper manuals.” He was also charged for “attending terrorist camp” in Eritrea.
I was flabbergasted by the allegations, but even more stunned by the apparent essential similarity between the Licensing Order of 1643 against which Milton railed in Areopagitica and section 58 of the Terrorism Act which criminalizes the “possession, collection or recording of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism” in documentary, photographic or electronic form. The Licensing Order criminalized and aimed to suppress the publication and possession of “false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and Government.”
Ironically, the Licensing Order of 1643 appears to be more enlightened than section 58 of the Terrorism Act in the fact that it imposed blanket censorship subject to exceptions of the official censor. Section 58 uses vague and overbroad language to criminalize any publication deemed “useful in committing terrorism”. An academic researching guerrilla tactics or other forms of asymmetric warfare could easily be charged under section 58 for possession of information likely to be useful for the commission of terrorism. That is the abysmally incomprehensible nature of section 58. It gives the Crown prosecutor unfettered and limitless powers to suppress and criminalize information merely by asserting that it is “likely” to be “useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”
Roll over in your grave, John Milton!
What is utterly incomprehensible is the fact that the “proscribed” publications alleged to be in the possession of Kersmo are all available for purchase online from Amazon.com or could be freely accessed on various websites according to reports in social media. (No, Amazon.com is not a co-defendant in the Kersmo prosecution.)
The publications allegedly possessed by Kersmo deal with “urban guerrilla warfare” and include manuals on sniper training, hand-to-hand combat, and analysis of intelligence principles. Kersmo’s computer(s) allegedly contained photographs of persons apparently clad in camouflage and Kersmo interacting with persons in military-style uniform, a tract on non-violent struggle against the regime in Ethiopia, documents written in Amharic allegedly providing instructions on making explosives and other sundry documents.
Who is Tadesse Biru Kersmo?
Kersmo is an academic who holds an interdisciplinary doctoral degree in social sciences and Master’s in Economics. In Ethiopia, Kersmo was department chair of economics at Unity University. He also taught at Addis Ababa University. In the U.K., he taught at the International Leadership Institute, affiliated with the University of Greenwich in London…
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