The reason for treason

23 August 2018

Tim Dieppe discusses the reasons put forward for a new treason offence and argues that it is a welcome proposal.

Just as we were entering summer holiday season, the think tank Policy Exchange released a report arguing that the law of treason ought to be restored in order to properly recognise the seriousness of acts of betrayal against society.

The report is authored by Professor Richard Ekins, barrister and academic; Patrick Hennessey, barrister and broadcaster; Khalid Mahmoud MP; and Tom Tugendhat MP. It includes a foreword by Igor Judge, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales 2008-2013. The report is also endorsed by former Home Secretary Amber Rudd MP; Sir Noel Malcolm Senior Research Fellow at All Soul’s College, Oxford; Richard Walton, former Head of the Counter Terrorism Command; Lord Evans of Weardale, former Director General of the Security Service; and Sir Stephen Laws, former First Parliamentary Counsel.

Reasons for a new treason offence

The report is carefully argued and well-constructed. It argues that we need a new treason offence for the following key reasons:

  • Citizenship entails a duty of allegiance which means that citizens have a duty not to betray their country.
  • Betrayal of one’s country by helping its enemies has always been recognised as a most serious crime.
  • The UK’s law of treason is now ancient law and unworkable.
  • Other countries with a similar legal tradition (Australia and New Zealand) have updated their treason laws in sensible manners.
  • The UK’s terrorism legislation fails to recognise the wrongfulness of betrayal which means that sentences imposed on British citizens for aiding ISIS or similar groups are often manifestly inadequate.
  • A new treason offence carrying a mandatory life sentence (except in extenuating circumstances) would serve to aid community cohesion by reminding Government and citizens of the duty of allegiance that we owe to our society and the seriousness of a clear act of betrayal.
  • A mandatory life sentence for the heinous crime of betraying the trust of society would also serve to make society safer.
  • An updated treason law would remove the incentive for the government to export justice for those who have aided our enemies to foreign jurisdictions.

Treason in the Bible

Treason is certainly treated as a serious offence in the Bible. The nation of Israel functioned under Moses and the Judges as a theocracy. In a theocracy, worship of other gods constitutes treason. Deuteronomy 13 deals with this kind of offence and makes it clear that a person who encourages worship of other gods should be put to death – even if it is your friend or relative – and in serious cases, a whole city should be destroyed.

Disobeying a priest or someone who judges God’s law is tantamount to disobeying God and is therefore treason. Hence in Deuteronomy 17:12:

“The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.”

At the end of Joshua 1, the people say to Joshua:

“Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death.”

This is also a form of treason law, recognising rebellion against the leader to be treason.

Under a monarchy, attacking or encouraging rebellion against the king is an act of treason. There are several examples of this in the Bible, including the rebellion of Sheba in 2 Samuel 20.

Trust is foundational for any society

Any society requires a level of trust and allegiance in order to hold together. Such trust is fundamental, foundational, and fragile. Societies have always recognised this and treated betrayal of this trust seriously. Helping others to attack your society is one of the most serious offences you can commit against your own people. It was only in 1998 that the death penalty for treason was abolished in the UK under the Crime and Disorder Act.

The proposed new treason law would cover British citizens who have joined ISIS or travelled to fight for them by making it an offence to aid a state or organisation that is attacking or preparing to attack the UK. The freedom to criticise one’s own country and armed forces would not be criminalised – one could even suggest that our forces deserve to be defeated. You could even believe that it is one’s religious duty to aid attacks on one’s country – only the act of attacking your own country would be counted as treason.

Anjem Choudary and others

The report argues that Anjem Choudary’s sentence of five and a half years’ imprisonment is manifestly inadequate for the crime that he committed in betraying his country. He was guilty of acting as a recruiting agent for a group that carried out attacks on the UK and against which UK forces are currently fighting. Choudary, who was jailed in September 2016, is expected to be released on licence in October this year. In the words of the report:

“Choudary betrayed his country, aiding its enemies by encouraging others to take up arms with them and thereby undermining the trust that ought to hold amongst citizens. In the absence of exceptional mitigating factors, none of which were present in his case – on the contrary, Choudary was a mature, calculating offender – his crime deserved a life sentence.”

Between 2006 and 2017, 193 people were given prison sentences for terrorism offences, more than 80 of which are due for release later this year. Many of them would have also been convicted of treason under this proposed offence, and would therefore be imprisoned for life, making society considerably safer.

Proposal should be welcomed

This proposal for a new treason law is well thought out and should be welcomed. It is quite right to say that betrayal of the trust conferred on citizens is a heinous crime deserving of serious punishment. Our laws need updating to recognise this.

It is good to see MPs and other prominent members of society endorsing this proposal. It takes seriously the fact that we are fighting an enemy which is not a nation state, but which is nonetheless aimed at destroying our society. Those who aid our enemies in attacking this country should be punished for the sake of promoting cohesion and safety in society. I hope it will not take more terrorist attacks for the law to be updated in this way.

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