Latest update: November 30th, 2011
Because of court arguments over the punctuation in the act’s original language, it was said that Casement was “hanged by a comma.”
The act was also used to prosecute “Lord Haw-Haw,” William Joyce, in 1945. Joyce had served as Hitler’s radio propagandist, beaming pro-Nazi messages into Britain during the war.
Churchill’s Britain banned not only fascist newspapers and organizations during World War II but also the communist newspaper The Daily Worker.
The British Treason Act provided for mandatory execution of traitors. It distinguished between high treason and petty treason. In both cases, the traitor was executed, but in the latter cases his property was not seized by the Crown. Britain executed sixteen traitors under the Act during World War II.
The act was suspended in 1946 and later repealed. However, Britain has other laws against treason. Under the British Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, the punishment for treason is life imprisonment (it had been death up until that law was passed).
Canada also has a treason act. It distinguishes between high treason and other forms, with high treason consisting of acts committed during time of war. The punishment is mandatory life imprisonment.
Australia has a somewhat similar treason law. Turkey, Ireland and Brazil have treason acts that provide for execution of traitors, as do many Third World countries.
The United States has had anti-treason laws that allow for execution of traitors, though these were seldom applied, and similar laws were once passed by some individual states. The U.S. also has the Espionage Act of 1917.
French law provides for life imprisonment for treason, as do statutes in Hong Kong, India and New Zealand.
Switzerland’s treason act usually provides for softer punishments, but in some cases life imprisonment is a possibility.
Germany also has an anti-treason law with punishments up to life imprisonment for high treason, defined as attempts to overturn the constitutional order.
Execution and life imprisonment were not the only responses of Western democracies to internal treason. In 1939 the British government under Winston Churchill passed Defense Regulation 18B. It suspended habeas corpus for Nazi sympathizers and allowed for their wholesale internment without trial. While enemy aliens were interned under other laws, this law was used to intern British nationals.
The law’s provisions for such arrests were very loose. They included any suspicion that a person represented a danger to Britain or was a member of any association hostile to Britain or involved in “acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defense of the realm or in the preparation or instigation of such acts.”
People could be arrested without warning, including those serving in the British military. About a thousand were so interned in 1940, though that number was halved by mid-1943. The law was used to jail pro-German British citizens, including members of the pro-Nazi British Union of Fascists party, led by Oswald Mosley. Mosley was arrested in 1940, along with his wife, and held in Holloway Prison. In a controversial move, Churchill released him in November 1943 due to health problems. Churchill famously ordered the arrest of George Pitt-Rivers, another British Nazi sympathizer.
The United States passed its first law against enemy aliens and against treason in the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798. It allowed for the internment of enemy aliens in time of war. Among those indicted under it was an American congressman born in Ireland, Matthew Lyon. It remained on the books, supplemented by the Sedition Act of 1918, an initiative of President Woodrow Wilson, which was later repealed.
Abraham Lincoln may have been the most aggressive president when it came to prosecuting and jailing traitors. He ordered the suspension of habeas corpus in 1861. He used military tribunals and declarations of martial law liberally. More than 4,200 trials by military commission were conducted.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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