Daily Archives: October 30, 2009

Town councils given ‘Al Capone’ powers to seize public’s assets

Daily Mail | Oct 28, 2009

By Kirsty Walker

AL CAPONETown hall officials will be given draconian new ‘Al Capone’ powers to search homes, seize cash, freeze bank accounts and confiscate property.

The powers are currently used by the police to deprive crime barons of their luxury lifestyles by seizing their assets.

But from next week, they will be extended to local authorities, quangos and agencies – such as the Royal Mail and Transport for London.

The radical extension of this powers will be forced through using a Statutory Instrument – a little known piece of legislation which does not require parliamentary approval.

The measures were last night criticised by police chiefs, politicians, civil rights campaigners and legal experts.

They warned that the tough new powers will be abused by bureaucrats to pursue individuals for minor offences such as failure to pay a parking ticket, falling into arrears with council tax or fare dodging.

In 2003, law enforcement agencies were given wide-ranging confiscation powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act to seize cash and property from drug dealers, people traffickers and money launderers.

They are branded the ‘Al Capone’ powers after the American crime baron who was jailed in 1931 for income tax evasion – after the authorities failed to pin down racketeering charges on him.

Councils, quangos and agencies are already able to use these powers. But they currently have to seek authorisation from the police. From next week, they will be able to act independently.

A Home Office spokesman said that the extension of the powers would provide a boost in the fight against crime and would free up the police.

She insisted that the Accredited Financial Investigators are properly trained and monitored by the National Policing Improvement Agency quango.

The spokesman added that the investigators will only be able to use the new powers in relation to criminal activity.

However, Shadow Communities Secretary Caroline Spelman warned: ‘We have already seen how surveillance laws designed to tackle terror and serious crime have been routinely abused and over-used by town hall officials.

‘I fear these new powers to inspect financial records and seize assets will also end up being misused and will divert resources to minor breaches like being late in paying a parking fine.’

Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, warned that the ‘intrusive powers’ should be kept in the hands of law enforcement agencies.

He said: ‘The Proceeds of Crime Act is a very powerful tool in the hands of police and police-related agencies and it shouldn’t be treated lightly.

‘There is a behind-the-scenes creep of powers occurring here and I think the public will be very surprised.

‘They would want such very intrusive powers to be kept in the hands of warranted officers and other law enforcement bodies which are vetted to a very high standard rather than given to local councils.’

Dylan Sharpe, Campaign Director of Big Brother Watch, said: ‘There is no doubt that in very serious cases, the ability to seize assets and freeze bank accounts is an invaluable tool.

‘But when local authorities are given access to these heavily intrusive and far-reaching powers, they invariably end up using them for the wrong reasons.

‘When we are talking about giving local authorities the ability to search through private belongings and bank accounts, these measures really ought to receive the full-scrutiny afforded by Parliament.’

He added: ‘Most people will never have heard of these Accredited Financial Investigators until they return from their shopping and find them on their doorsteps.’

Andrew Bodnar, a specialist in asset recovery law at the Matrix Chambers, said: ‘The extension of these powers should be monitored very closely.

‘The spectre of counter-terrorism powers being used to monitor people’s bin- filling habits, or what school they’re trying to send their children to, should be cautionary.

‘Having these Al Capone powers in the back pocket is very valuable for a senior prosecutor but in the hands of someone less experienced and less skilled… there is the potential for charges to be brought which are intended to maximise confiscation recovery rather than reflect the level of criminality concerned.’

A Home Office spokesman said that the powers could be used to target benefit cheats, but she denied that they would be used to target people for failing to pay parking fines.

She said: ‘We are determined to ensure criminals do not profit by breaking the law. Seizing ill-gotten gains is a key part of the fight against criminals — whether it is from small-time offences or organised crime.

‘Accredited Financial Investigators have played an integral role in the recovery of criminal assets since the Proceeds of Crime Act was introduced in 2003, they are fully trained and their powers carefully controlled in law.

‘By giving them some new powers we are extending the fight against crime and freeing up valuable police time.’

America’s new crusader castles

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Across the Middle East, the US is building heavily fortified embassies which cut off diplomats and create hostilities

guardian.co.uk | Oct 29, 2009

by Simon Tisdall

After the US Congress agreed a $7.5bn aid package for Pakistan this autumn, the Obama administration was taken aback by the seemingly ungrateful reaction of its intended recipients. Pakistani opposition politicians fumed about “colonialism” and “imperialism”. Military men spoke angrily of insults to national sovereignty implied in conditions attached to the aid.

But particular hostility was directed at US plans to spend over $800m on building a new, heavily fortified embassy in Islamabad, to be protected by the private security contractor, DynCorp. The activities of contractors in Iraq, notably Blackwater, have become notorious in the Muslim world. In addition, expanded US “bunker consulates” were announced for Lahore and Peshawar.

“Just the other day we had a television debate on America wanting to colonise us,” one Pakistani said. “How easy it was for us to believe this when we hear of Blackwater setting up camp in our cities, buying hundreds of homes, not being accountable to the laws of our country, of hundreds of US marines on our soil, being allowed to enter without visas, of the enormous new US embassy being built which is like a mini-Pentagon.”

Despite such complaints, US plans are going ahead. They include a $405m replacement embassy building in Islamabad, the construction of a $111m office annexe to accommodate 330 workers, and new housing units costing $197m. In Peshawar, scene of a devastating Taliban car bomb attack on Wednesday, the US plans to buy the city’s only five-star hotel and turn it into a sort of diplomatic Martello tower.

The US says the new facilities are needed because old premises are insecure and it must accommodate the “civilian surge” of diplomats and officials into Pakistan and Afghanistan ordered by Barack Obama. But the American expansion in Islamabad mirrors similar developments in other Muslim and foreign capitals that are focal points for the Pentagon’s “long war” against Islamist extremism.

Shocked by the 1998 al-Qaida attacks on its Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies, the US has opened 68 new embassies and overseas facilities since 2001 and has 29 under design and construction, the state department’s bureau of overseas buildings operations says. Total worldwide spending on embassy replacement has been put at $17.5bn.

In Kabul, Baghdad, Jakarta, Cairo and beyond, in “allied” cities such as London and Berlin, Washington is building, reinforcing or expanding slab-walled, fortress-like embassies that act as regional overseas HQs, centres of influence and intelligence-gathering, and problematic symbols of superpower.

Historically speaking, these formidable outposts are the 21st century equivalent of crusader castles, rising out of the plain, projecting superior force, and grimly dominating all they behold.

As in Pakistan, the new strongholds attract plenty of criticism, acting almost as magnets for trouble. The massively fortified $700m Baghdad embassy, the biggest US mission in the world with 1,200 employees, was dogged by construction delays and militant attacks before it finally opened in January this year. Now even the state department’s own inspector-general has ruled that the 21-building, 104-acre encampment is too big. “The time has come for a significant right-sizing,” a July report said.

The Kabul embassy, which is negotiating an $87m purchase of 30 to 40 additional acres, encountered a different kind of trouble last month after photographs emerged of embassy guards engaging in sex acts, pouring vodka on each other, and dancing naked round a fire. The guards were employed by another private security firm, ArmorGroup North America. The revelations underscored existing concerns about security contractors. Investigators concluded the embassy’s safety had been seriously compromised.

Away from the frontline of America’s wars, the unveiling last year of the new US embassy in Berlin, close by the Brandenburg Gate, brought strong objections of an aesthetic nature. Architectural experts queued up to lambast the squat, custard-coloured but bomber-proof building, deriding it as a “klotz” (lump) built by barbarians.

One newspaper compared the offending edifice to a maximum security prison, another to a council house, while Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung fumed: “There is hardly a modern building in existence, with the exception of nuclear bunkers and pesticide-testing centres, that is so hysterically closed off from public spaces as this embassy.”

On present trends, Londoners face being similarly shut-out as the US embassy currently centrally located in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, prepares to move to a brand new concrete citadel in wild, far-off but hopefully al-Qaida-free Wandsworth.

The way the new embassies tend to physically cut off America’s diplomats from the countries they are supposed to connect with is one good reason, among many, why Washington might want to rethink its laager policy. While effective security is obviously important, the worldwide rise of America’s diplomatic fortresses undermines the kind of “soft power” outreach and public diplomacy that the Obama administration earnestly espouses.

In a policy-setting speech in July, secretary of state Hillary Clinton stressed the US need to communicate directly with other countries from the bottom up. “Reaching out directly to people will encourage them to embrace cooperation with us, making our partnerships with their governments and with them stronger and more durable,” she said.

That makes sense. But it’s not the message citizens of Islamabad are hearing. When America speaks to Pakistanis and other Muslim countries, it too often sounds like it’s shouting down from the battlements.