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UK cracks down on rioters

world Updated: Aug 12, 2011 02:33 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

After days of political dithering and police inaction, British prime minister David Cameron on Thursday announced a series of overdue measures aimed at dealing with widespread rioting in Britain.

Five days of rioting, looting and arson has presented the nation - known for its liberal policing methods - with a bill of over £200 million, according to the Association of British Insurers. Hundreds of shops and homes have been ransacked and set alight in unprecedented violence across London and at least a dozen other cities and towns in England.

Cameron, who cut short his holidays after three days of rioting, told a sombre British parliament that police were surprised by what was a new kind of rioting in Britain: "different people doing the same thing - basically looting - in different places all at the same time."

Britain is no stranger to sporadic localized rioting, but London's Scotland Yard police force was clearly ill-prepared to confront the sheer scale of the violence that erupted on Saturday - spread through the use of mobile phone technology and social media.

Former police chiefs say the force was also hamstrung by human rights considerations after strong criticism of the way it policed protests at the 2009 G20 summit in London, when an innocent bystander died of a heart attack after being clubbed on the leg and pushed to the ground by a police officer.

In a country where police officers are armed with no more than clubs, the death of Ian Tomlison is routinely ascribed to "police brutality." A newspaper supporting Cameron's Conservative party has quoted a Scotland Yard source as saying police deployed to quell the recent riots were ordered to "stand back and observe" - a charge denied by Cameron.

The measures announced by the British leader on Thursday included the future use of water cannons, restricting the use of social media during riots, custodial sentences for those who are charged and powers to remove facemasks.

Astonishingly, Britain's liberal policing methods mean police can only remove balaclavas, hoods or facemasks off rioters in a "specific geographical location and for a limited time."

However, one method of law enforcement that appears to have paid off in the current crisis is Britain's sweeping use of CCTVs. Thousands of images have been captured by these cameras, and Cameron said: "No phoney human rights concerns about publishing these photographs will get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice."