LONDON – Olympic organizers and the British government have been warned they face a public relations nightmare amid charges that the security measures for the 2012 Games constitute a flagrant disregard of basic civil rights.
Less than three weeks before the Opening Ceremony on July 27, much of the pre-event chatter among Londoners revolves not around the competitions themselves, but the controversial measures being implemented to safeguard against terrorist activity.
On Monday, a high-profile court case began in which a group of London residents sued security forces because a surface-to-air missile – which could be used to shoot down a civilian airplane in case of a hijacking – is designated to be placed on the roof of their apartment building.
Residents of the Fred Wigg Tower in Leytonstone, less than a mile from where soccer icon David Beckham grew up, were seeking an injunction against the missile placement they claim increases their own danger of being under attack.
"It is the unprecedented siting of a military base or missile site in peace time on English soil that brings us to this court," lawyer Marc Willers said on behalf of the group.
Tuesday, a high court ruled the residents did not have an arguable case.
"It is clearly necessary to protect the Olympic Park from potential terrorist attack both from the air and the ground," Judge Charles Haddon-Cave said. "The first duty of government is to defend the realm and to protect national security, including by protecting the public from terrorist attack."
Elsewhere in London, similar outrage has bubbled over. A small but vocal protest group marched in opposition to a planned missile location in the south of the city last week, and the sense of discontent is growing.
"It seems naïve in the extreme that the government and the figures behind the organization of the Olympics apparently believed they could ride roughshod over the human rights of the general public," said protest leader Mark Chambers. "People are fed up with this. It is not unpatriotic or anti-Olympic to want to safeguard your personal rights and home from a drastic and inappropriate level of intrusion. If they are not careful they will have a public relations nightmare on their hands. It is already heading that way."
In one sense, the authorities' determination to guard against any form of terrorism is understandable. On July 7, 2005, just one day after London was awarded hosting rights for the 2012 Games, a series of terror attacks took place on the city's transport system, leaving 52 innocent civilians dead, more than 700 injured and causing billions of pounds of damage.
However, pre-Games security is becoming an explosive topic at a time when the United Kingdom's human rights record has come under heavy scrutiny. Two pieces of legislation – the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 – have both been criticized as being out of line with the European Convention of Human Rights, which every nation in the European Union is bound by.
The 2001 Act allows for the ongoing detention of suspects thought to pose a threat to national security with less stringent evidence of wrongdoing than would normally be demanded. Just this week, an alleged al-Qaeda militant was arrested for crossing through Olympic Park five times.
With the eyes of the world set to be trained upon London and the city desperate to put on a successful show, political leaders and security chiefs are leaving nothing to chance. David Anderson, the UK's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation and one of the country's leading lawyers, went so far as to admit that pre-emptive arrests have been made to stamp out potential trouble.
"The Olympics are potentially a major target and you are seeing the police, perhaps in a marginal case what they might do is intervene a bit earlier," Anderson said.
The government has repeatedly defended its actions and measures on the grounds of national security and vowed to remain vigilant throughout the entire Olympic festivities.
An aircraft carrier holding fighter helicopters will be moored in the River Thames beginning in mid-July, while a crack team of Royal Air Force fighter jets will be stationed at two locations near the capital. Six tower blocks, including the Fred Wigg Tower, have been selected to host missiles.
Member of Parliament Patrick Mercer MP summed up the government's unapologetic approach to safety and defended the use of the missile placements.
"The national good is more important than the inconvenience these individuals will suffer for a few weeks," Mercer said.
While that sentiment may have some merit, the government has done little to help its own cause in the court of public opinion. Similarly, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, the official organizing committee, has committed a series of embarrassing PR blunders.
The London press has pounded on several unflattering stories, such as accusations that G4S, the official private security provider for London 2012, was running illegal operations within Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory on the disputed West Bank.
Concerns were also raised over the credentials of the firm detailed to provide Olympic fire safety after the company, Close Protection UK, was criticized for its performance during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations – and its managing director was found to have previously headed five failed companies.
All the ruckus might have had the expected effect of dampening Olympic spirits somewhat, yet there is another factor that may be having an even more significant impact in harming goodwill towards the Games.
That would be the obsessive zeal with which trading standards officers have thrown themselves into protecting the Games "brand" and the rights of its official sponsors. Even small business trying to get into the Olympic spirit with Games-themed shop displays have fallen afoul of the censors if they dare commit such apparently heinous infringements such as making a display to resemble the Olympic Rings or using the words "gold, silver and bronze" inappropriately, whatever that means.
A "Brand Exclusion Zone" will be in operation for up to half a mile surrounding the Olympic Park, in which no advertising of any product that competes with an officially-sponsored Olympic item is permitted. For example, don't expect to see any Pepsi ads tolerated – Coca Cola is an official sponsor.
Even the athletes will find their behavior censored, with strict guidelines governing their Tweeting habits and the level and content of their messages.
Combine all that with the coldest, wettest British summer for more than two centuries and the chances of London leaving its visitors with warm and fuzzy feelings appear ever more remote.
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