Monday, June 23, 2008

Europeans Yawn Over Civil Liberties

As the far left bloggers (Daily Kos and Moveon.ort) threaten Obama to try and force him into a stronger stand on the FISA bill, Congressional Quarterly publishes a fascinating essay on civil liberties in European countries called We Rage, Europeans Yawn, Over Domestic Counterterrorism Ops by Jeff Stein.

The opening:

Ever since I attended a conference on homeland security in Paris four years ago, I’ve been fascinated by how little the French, Italians, Germans and other continentals worry about violations of their civil rights by their spy agencies.

In fact, outside the United Kingdom, which invented civil liberties with the Magna Carta 993 years ago last Sunday, ordinary Europeans couldn’t care less about wiretapping, national ID cards, preventive detention and police spies in mosques, all of which have millions of Americans, not to mention the ACLU and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul , R-Texas, up in arms.

And even in London, only the newspapers and a few liberal politicians made a fuss over the Labour government’s decision, ratified by the House of Commons on June 11, to extend to 42 days the police’s authority to hold terrorism suspects without charge.

“British liberties have been eroded under Labour. Few seem to mind much,” the Economist headlined one story on the row this week.

“Liberals have long lamented that, despite much stirring rhetoric about the mother of parliaments and Magna Carta, modern Britons have little real interest in their hard-won liberties,” the magazine maintained. “On June 17th, as Gordon Brown gave a speech on the subject, that pessimism seemed confirmed when one rapt listener fell asleep in the middle of the prime minister’s oration.”

I find this strangely both incredible and not incredible, re Italy here:

Prominent civil liberties groups don’t even exist in Rome.

“Occasionally, there are panels on these matters organized by university professors, historians, legal experts, judges or journalists,” Sisti said. “But it’s like talking to the winds.”

The public’s indifference even extends to U.S. covert activities in Italy, where 26 Americans, all but one CIA operatives, are being tried in absentia on charges they kidnapped an al Qaeda suspect in Milan in 2003.

Sisti said that when testimony in the trial recently revealed that the CIA had placed a spy inside the Milan mosque attended by the suspect, Abu Omar, there was “no reaction."

“Sometimes jurists or editorialists try to stir up interest in such legal matters,” he said, “but there are only a few.”

As in France, Italian police keep tabs on the mosques with bugs and informants, generally an anathema here, where the struggle for religious freedom and the separation of church and state are part of the national political fabric.

And Armando Spataro, the Italian prosecutor in the CIA case, told me the public doesn’t worry much about its rights.

“They’d rather watch the football championships!” he said by e-mail on Friday.

I guess I knew this. I read Michael Dibdin who writes very good crime novels set in Italy. I suppose I thought he was exaggerating. (A great read, his Dirty Tricks.)

A European journalist remarks:
“There is a more highly developed sense [in the United States] of what freedom means,” he said.

But here's the salient point, buried at the very end. In all but Great Britain, there's a different judicial system. Britain and the US are common law jurisdictions and the trier of fact is a jury. In France and in other civil code countries, the trier of fact is a judge (or magistrate). The whole set up is different. Here we have the government vs. the defendant, with the judge as arbiter and the jury deciding the case. In Europe, those familiar structures don't transfer.
“We don’t have ‘habeas corpus’ because the investigative magistrate (juge d’ Instruction) is present from the very beginning of the investigation,” Bruguière told me. “Moreover, in the French judicial system, the judge is allowed to conduct wiretaps in order to gather pieces of evidence. For that purpose he issues a special warrant.”

No comments: