By Jess Bowie

23 Jan 2015

Once an anonymous Whitehall lawyer, Shami Chakrabarti is now the very public face of Britain’s civil liberties movement – and a woman who inspires admiration and outrage in equal measure. Jess Bowie meets her

Sitting in a sterile boardroom waiting for Shami Chakrabarti to arrive is nerve-wracking. It’s not every day one comes face to face with “Britain’s most dangerous woman”. A clock ticks on the wall opposite a large bookshelf of forbidding legal volumes. Minutes pass and still no sign. Could it be that the Liberty director is so busy threatening Britain’s national security that the CSW interview has slipped her mind?

Finally she enters and, with a smile and a firm handshake, sits down. She doesn’t look menacing. On the other hand, has Jon Gaunt – the broadcaster and columnist who gave Chakrabarti the “most dangerous woman” tag – ever been known to be wrong?

The 45-year-old civil liberties campaigner would be the first to admit that she still dines out on the characterisation, given to her by Gaunt in 2008 during a fit of outrage that someone who defends the rights of terror suspects could be awarded a CBE. Not long after, in a bizarre twist of fate, Chakrabarti – who has since earned a string of other awards, honours and university chancellorships – found herself standing up for Gaunt and his right to free speech (TalkSport sacked him after he called a Tory councillor a Nazi on air).

“That’s the thing: human rights are for everybody,” she says today, when reminded of her brush with the former shock jock.

“You don’t think you’re going to need them until you wake up one day like Jon Gaunt and find that you’ve said something silly on the radio and you’ve lost your job with no due process whatsoever. You never think it’s going to be you. That’s why people need a bit of imagination and a bit of empathy, because if you don’t stick up for other people’s rights and freedoms, there won’t be any left when it’s your turn.”

It’s a point Chakrabarti has been making loudly and consistently since she started work as an in-house counsel at the pressure group once known as the National Council for Civil Liberties. The day after she arrived at her desk in September 2001, 9/11 triggered the war on terror, reshaping much of Liberty’s work. Quite a baptism of fire, but Chakrabarti thrived: two years later, aged just 34, she was made director and rapidly became, in her own words, “a human logo” for the organisation.

A youthful, articulate figure, Chakrabarti was TV gold for Newsnight and Question Time bookers, and was soon a household name. Such prominence was a change for a young barrister more used to life inside the civil service.

“Ah, the Dark Tower... Mordor,” she says, recalling her years as a lawyer at the Home Office. (Charkrabarti later reveals she has been to see the new Hobbit film with her son the night before, which perhaps explains the Tolkien imagery.)   

“I affectionately call it Mordor, but in truth I spent six very happy, educational years there – probably the most formative period of my career. I made many very good friends and learnt a hell of a lot.”

Chakrabarti on…
...allowing extremists to appear on TV and at public meetings

It’s very, very tricky. I believe in free speech but there are limits to free expression. But I think that it is so important that we have free speech that I’d say that when you’re inciting violence, that’s a proper criminal offence. If you’re just ranting, I think one should be really, really slow to criminalise it.

As for John (now Baron) Reid’s infamous declaration, upon becoming home secretary in 2006, that parts of the department were “not fit for purpose”, Chakrabarti rolls her eyes.

“That was a very, very unfortunate thing that he said and it was terrible for morale at the time. I have no truck with that kind of glib description of a great institution. So I will not trash the home department. I think it has enormous challenges, but those mostly come with the way that politicians treat home affairs, rather than inherent problems in the department. Politicians want to lock up more and more people, whether in the prison estate or in the immigration estate; that’s not the fault of the institution,” she says.

She adds that she has a great deal of respect for the “incredibly intelligent, altruistic public servants” she has met in the Home Office, “who could have gone to the City of London to make fortunes, but chose the public service route and in a very difficult area of policy”.

Yet she does not regard all Whitehall bodies – nor all civil servants – with the same affection. Unsurprisingly, the Liberty director is deeply suspicious of the activities of the intelligence agencies, arguing – as she has on many Question Time panels – that “the spooks” have become far too politically powerful in recent years.

“After the 2010 election, the Lib Dems kind of injected something new into the mix, and the Lib Dem-Tory coalition, initially at least, was looking more liberal on lots of security policy. I think there were ‘securocrats’, if I can put it that way, who were not happy with that, and actually went so far as to brief newspapers. And when that happens, that’s really, really troubling.”

And journalists weren’t the only ones being briefed, she says.

“I knew from politicians that there were also some senior securocrats who would go and meet with politicians and brief them against their own colleagues.

“I think that’s a real mistake. They shouldn’t be playing politics, they shouldn’t be pursuing personal or institutional agendas, they shouldn’t be talking to newspapers, and they certainly shouldn’t be briefing against elected politicians,” she says.

This is just one of many things that senior intelligence officials have to answer for, in Chakrabarti’s eyes. From her vantage point, there’s been a huge power grab post-9/11, particularly in government surveillance. And it was against this backdrop, she says, that the Justice and Security Act was created – legislation designed to provide oversight of the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ, which also introduced closed material procedures (or “secret courts”) for certain civil proceedings.

Chakrabarti calls the act “an absolute scandal”, and goes on to make a claim which, if true, raises important questions for the civil servants and coalition politicians involved in drafting and passing it.
“That was an act that was basically written by senior spooks. And I know that because pre-general election a very senior public servant running one of the agencies basically told me exactly what would be in that bill. So that bill probably would have been drafted and promoted within Whitehall regardless of who won that general election, and that’s pretty scary,” she says.

With electioneering for 2015 already in full swing, Chakrabarti is now fearful about what might happen after May, although she sees a more immediate threat in the potential impact on civil liberties of further sweeping cuts to the public sector.

“Austerity is always a very dangerous time for civil liberties, and I say that because my organisation was formed in the 1930s, in response to the kind of extremism that comes in very difficult economic times. And the particular trigger was people on the Hunger Marches being duffed up by the Metropolitan Police.

“But in times of economic hardship, you do see the rise of racism, nationalism, and you see problems with crime. And then you see the clampdown, the action with the reaction. So austerity is inevitably a scary moment for civil liberties,” she says.

Born to Hindu-Bengali parents in the London borough of Harrow, Sharmishta Chakrabarti’s human rights awakening came during a conversation with her father when she was 13. The family was watching a news item about the Yorkshire Ripper and the young Shami said she hoped they would “string the monster up”. Her father responded by explaining why she shouldn’t support the death penalty, asking his daughter to consider how it would feel to be wrongly accused and on the way to the electric chair.

After attending Bentley Wood, an all-girls comprehensive, and Harrow College at sixth form, Chakrabarti studied law at the LSE – where she would later join the board of governors. She was called to the bar in 1994 and was snapped up by the Home Office two years later. Although Chakrabarti has always been tight-lipped about her own political leanings, she is known to have been a member of the SDP in her youth. Does this mean she now feels the closest tie with the Lib Dems – the self-professed party of civil liberties?

Chakrabarti on...
...what she’ll do after Liberty

I don’t know, there you go. I didn’t know [when I was asked in 2008] and I don’t know now. I said something like ‘I must move on soon’ and then I didn’t, so I’ve got to stop answering questions about that! But I’m told that Ian Hislop has been doing that for years as well at Private Eye...

“Firstly, whatever any party says, there is no ‘party of civil liberties’, okay? That’s why it’s really important that Liberty, my organisation, is cross-party and non-party. I’ve been doing this work for 13 years; I’ve been director for 11 years. There are hawks and doves everywhere when it comes to civil liberties in Parliament, and we have had incredibly important cross-party alliances on things like detention without trial, identity cards and so on. So nobody can claim to be ‘the party of civil liberties’.”

Yet the Lib Dem justice minister Simon Hughes recently did just this, using the phrase during his explanation of the ways in which the new Counter Terrorism and Security Bill is proportionate, evidence-led and protective of individual civil liberties.

“That is really laughable,” Chakrabarti says, when she hears the quote from Hughes.

“This is a bill that would, if it passes unamended, allow people’s passports to be taken from them so they can’t come back into the country unless they accept punishment without charge or trial under a TPIM [Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measure]. This is a bill that would give the home secretary powers to direct universities and other independent civil society spaces on what they should do on radicalisation. That’s pretty chilling to me.

“I mean, TPIMs were rebranded control orders anyway, and now it won’t even be a rebrand, it’s basically more power to punish without charge or trial, and there’s nothing civil libertarian or proportionate or in my view productive about that – because everything that I’ve watched during this misnamed, misjudged war on terror suggests to me that when you behave unjustly, you recruit more terrorists than you prevent.”
But how would Chakrabarti handle radicalised people, returning to Britain from Syria and Iraq, who were known to have gone out there to fight?

“Well the point is you don’t know. It’s kind of important; this is why we have trial systems so we can actually separate who’s guilty and who’s not, right? I know it’s not fashionable, but that’s the problem! Let’s say that a young man, and it probably is a young man, probably a young Muslim man, is coming back from one of these destinations, and we suspect he has been fighting in a foreign civil war. It could turn out that he was, it could turn out that he wasn’t, or it could turn out that he kind of… wanted to, but got there and saw what was going on and changed his mind.

“So he could be wicked and a war criminal, or he could be a naive adventurer, or he could be completely innocent in that he went out to have a look… I don’t see that with any of those categories of people, the right thing to do is to take their passports and to stop them coming back unless they’ll accept punishment without trial. The right thing to do is to let them come back, interview them, if necessary arrest and charge them; not always even do that. Sometimes just reintegrate them a bit more, like the Danish approach.”

Britain, Chakrabarti says, must be responsible for its own people: it can’t dump its citizens abroad like toxic waste. This is why Liberty has drafted an amendment to the bill, replacing temporary exclusion orders with a power for the home secretary to require airlines to tell her when a named suspect is on a plane, so that person can be intercepted on arrival.

“And there are plenty of powers to interview and arrest people under existing law,” she adds.

And Hughes’s assurance that a temporary exclusion order is “not a power to make people stateless or ban British citizens from entering the UK”, but rather the “power to manage a very real risk”? Chakrabarti straightens her back.

“It’s just not true! Forgive me, Mr Hughes can say whatever he likes, but the power is the power. The power is: ‘We will take your passport unless you agree to come in and live under a TPIM for two years.’ A TPIM is punishment without trial for two years. And if somebody says ‘Well I’m not going to accept punishment without trial’, then they’re taking your passport and you’re effectively stateless… It’s absolute nonsense and pretty disgraceful nonsense in my view.”

Chakrabarti talks to CSW before the terror attacks in Paris. She is unavailable to answer questions about the massacre – or George Osborne’s promise of more tools for Britain’s security services – but she warns on the Liberty website that the response of governments to attacks including 9/11 and 7/7 have not only failed to extinguish the threat of extremism, but “often undermined the unity and solidarity that can help to combat” it.  

During our discussion, however, I ask if she recognises the increased threat of terrorism in the current climate.

“I don’t judge the level of the threat, and I don’t have access to the secret intelligence,” she says.

“I am aware of the threat, just as I was when I was growing up in London and there were troubles in Northern Ireland, and bombs were going off in department stores and at party conferences. That was a time of great threat, and there have been enormous challenges since 9/11.

“My view, however, is that acting against your values rather than in accordance with your values gives rise to the charge of hypocrisy, and there’s nothing like festering injustice and the charge of hypocrisy to actually recruit more terrorists than you prevent. That was the experience of internment in Northern Ireland, and in my view that is the experience of departing from ‘rule of law’ norms – whether in Guantanamo Bay or Belmarsh Prison or under these control orders and TPIMs.”

Chakrabarti on…
...secret courts
Secret courts aren’t the courts at all really. The kind of Binyam Mohamed litigation, the Guantanamo litigation – those sorts of cases are now less likely to be possible, a) because civil legal aid’s been all but destroyed and b) because we’ve got this secret court system. There’s now less legal transparency and accountability when it comes to the power of the security state.

In the debate about how best to protect Britain from terrorism, online child sexual abuse and numerous other types of crime, it is impossible to deny that globalisation, mobile communications and the internet – to say nothing of the so-called dark internet – have transformed the nature of the threat. Listening to members of the police and security services describe how a lack of access to certain communications data is hampering their ability to prevent atrocities, can Chakrabarti really argue there is no case for increased surveillance of our communications?

“I don’t have a problem with targeted surveillance of people suspected of doing terrible things. That’s whether it’s online or offline; the principles are the same for me,” she says.

“I just think that the authorities have placed too much emphasis on a more blanket type surveillance rather than a targeted approach, and that’s my concern. Frankly, when you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, don’t build a bigger haystack: target the suspect behaviour and the suspect people sitting behind those messages or whatever, rather than scooping up everybody’s traffic and making us all feel twitchy that we can’t have private conversations.”

This chimes with the shocked response to the revelations by Edward Snowden of the sheer scale of government surveillance. And yet if there’s one person whose private conversations should be monitored, it’s surely “the most dangerous woman in Britain”?

Chakrabarti responds with a rueful laugh. “Well if I really were, Britain would be a much safer place.”

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