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Gareth Peirce on The Birmingham Six twenty years on: "Have we learned from our disgraceful past?"

Sarah Shin13 March 2011

On the twentieth anniversary since the release of the Birmingham Six, Gareth Peirce, writing for the Guardian, details their wrongful convictions and the "simplest of stupidities" that secured their release.

On 14 March 1991 the Birmingham Six finally walked free. Today, 20 years on, it is vital to appreciate the horrifying detail of what happened to them, and how the truth was not acknowledged for 16 years. The annihilation of justice for others remains an ever-present spectre.

Assessing the  widespread condemnation of the use of torture in extracting confessions following the case of the Birmingham Six, Peirce turns her gaze to the new Muslim suspect community, and asks "if we have, in fact, learned anything at all from our disgraceful past":

At the trial in London last year of a young Muslim, one defence closing speech clearly interested the jury. In the case it was considering, it was being asked to infer involvement in terrorism from coincidences of association and the defendant's clear interest in radical Islam. The speech recalled another trial, that of the Birmingham Six, based equally on seemingly damning coincidences of faith, association and political loyalties. In that case six men, all Irish, all Catholic, had been drinking in a pub at New Street station in Birmingham before boarding a train to catch a ferry to Belfast. Within six minutes, bombs exploded in two pubs on the station precincts. The men, all carrying mass cards, were travelling to the funeral of a friend, an IRA man who had blown himself up whilst assembling a bomb. All were Republican sympathisers. All were convicted in 1975 of the murders of the 21 victims killed in the explosions in the pubs shortly after their train had left for the Heysham ferry. All were completely innocent. Applying lessons of past injustice to the present, the jury acquitted the young Muslim man ...

We have created, without doubt, a new suspect community. The young Muslim man on trial last year faced a different construct. Had he been convicted wrongly, too, there would have been no fabricated notes to discover years later. Instead association and interest might, had the prosecution in his case succeeded, have been enough under yet more emergency legislation to establish support for terrorism. And if acquitted? Control orders exist so that secret courts can (and do) hear secret evidence to severely constrain the liberty even of a person exonerated by a jury.

At least, we console ourselves, we no longer torture terrorist suspects. But is that claim a delusion? If we connive, it makes no difference whether the torture has been outsourced or perpetrated close to home in Birmingham. By the bitter end the case of the six men achieved what the successful elimination of torture requires, a very public accounting. But the detail of the British role in the production of tortured "confessions" in Guantánamo, Pakistan and Morocco is likely never to be publicly exposed; claimed "national security" is intended to ensure permanent secrecy. Twenty years on, we must therefore ask ourselves if we have, in fact, learned anything at all from our disgraceful past.

Visit the Guardian to read the article in full.

Gareth Peirce is part of the "list of 100 of the world's most inspirational women" compiled by the Guardian for International Women's Day.

Legal affairs correspondent Afua Hirsch writes

In the 1980s she represented the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, victims of the witch-hunt against Irish men during the height of the Troubles. More recently she has become a key architect in the fight against draconian counter-terrorism measures, representing the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead at Stockwell tube station in a bungled terrorism raid, and Moazzam Begg, who was detained in Guantánamo Bay. Her work defending those who are at the sharp end of state power has led many human rights activists to describe her name as "synonymous with civil rights"

Visit the Guardian to read the article in full and for the full list of the "top 100 women."

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