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British anti-terror proposal under fire

British anti-terror proposal under fire

Author: Daniel Strieff
Publication: MSNBC Online
Date: November 23, 2001
URL: http://www.msnbc.com/news/662139.asp?cp1=1

Legislation more stringent than U.S. counterpart

In a country where attacks by Northern Ireland terrorists remain a greater threat to internal security than Islamist militant groups, the British government is facing fierce criticism over proposed anti-terror legislation that Prime Minister Tony Blair is rushing to law.

One measure seeks penalties for using 'threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior intended to stir up hatred against people because of their religious belief.'

THE VOLUMINOUS 125-clause Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Bill has come under harsh criticism over the past week, when it faced open debate on Parliament's lower chamber floor.

The bill, seen as significantly more stringent than its U.S. counterpart, has been labeled "draconian" and "Kafkaesque."

It calls for broad new government powers aimed at tackling terrorists and terror networks in Britain.

The bill also gives wide-sweeping powers to track the telephone calls and Internet traffic of both British citizens and foreign nationals. One measure seeks stiff penalties for anyone using "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior intended or likely to stir up hatred against a group of people because of their religious belief (or lack of religious belief)."

The proposed legislation also makes it a crime for protesters to refuse a police order to remove a mask or disguise, and imposes harsh new penalties for hoaxers caught making bogus claims of possessing biological substances.

But by far the most contentious clause in the proposed legislation allows for indefinite detention for suspected foreign terrorists at the government's discretion.

David Blunkett, the chief law enforcement official in Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet and architect of the bill, is trying to push it through the House of Commons in less than week - far shorter than usual.

By opting out of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights - which forbids indefinite detention - Britain is forced to technically declare a state of emergency.

Under the new legislation, Blunkett, whose position is roughly equivalent to the U.S. attorney general, could detain foreign nationals who he certifies as a threat to national security. Each case will be reviewed every six months by a commission that will hear intelligence evidence. However, the suspects would not have access to the evidence against them and would not be allowed habeas corpus.

Supporters point out that the government would only detain those suspects who might face torture or death if they were to be moved to another country, called for by the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a concession this week, Blunkett agreed to make the detention provision lapse after five years.

However, in the event the suspected terrorist is wanted by U.S. authorities, it is unclear if Britain would allow extradition because the United States has capital punishment - which is outlawed by the European Union.

Britain is the only country of the some 40 signatories to the European convention that has sought to alter its laws to allow for indefinite detention.

Skeptics also wonder if one of the core principles of British justice - presumed innocence - will not be drowned out.

Leading British civil-rights group Liberty said it would challenge the law in the domestic courts and in the European Court of Human Rights when there was a detainee to bring such a challenge.

'WRONG IN PRINCIPLE'

Liberty has been scathing in its criticism for the bill, calling it an attack on the "basic principles of justice and freedom" and "wrong in principle."

"The government intends to jail people not for anything they have done, but for what [they think] they might have done or might do in the future," said Liberty's director, John Wadham. "This punches a hole in our constitutional protections."

But Blunkett insisted his legislation was a "rational, reasonable and proportionate response" to the Sept. 11 attacks. "This is not internment," he said.

"The numbers [of possible detainees] are not huge, but these people are suspected of being involved in terror networks which pose a major threat to our national security and to all our lives," Blunkett wrote in a defense published in The Guardian newspaper.

Some who object to the proposed legislation point out that the internment will be cumbersome in practice and will undergo endless legal challenges - and is not worth the effort if it is only used in handful of cases, as expected.

Amnesty International and the U.N. high commission for refugees have also expressed concerns about the scope of the proposed bill. The bill further allows authorities to detain terror suspects who immediately claim asylum once they are arrested. Britain has faced criticism for its rather liberal stance on asylum-seekers.

Critics have also pointed out that security officials have indicated that even since Sept. 11, Irish dissident groups were a greater threat to Britons than Muslim militants.

Yet around 20 suspected terrorists - all Muslim fundamentalists - in Britain have already been singled out but could not be held under current law, according to British media reports. The new law, however, would allow their detention.

Liberty - along with lawmakers of all persuasions - has also accused the government of trying to sneak through legislation under the guise of post-Sept. 11 protection but which really have nothing to do with the attacks on New York and Washington.

"The government is smuggling in other illiberal measures under the cover of proposals to deal with the events of 11 September," Wadham said.

ALMOST SURE TO PASS

Even in the face of heavy criticism, however, the plan is almost certain to become law next month. The clear majority of Blair's Labor Party in Parliament is such that most government proposals routinely pass.

In this case, the opposition Conservative party has agreed to support the anti-terror bill.

But reservations abound on both sides.

Even rank-and-file Labor members have spoken out against the bill. A total of 32 Labor parliamentarians voted against the proposed bill this week.

Internment without trial is allowed in many countries, including Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In Britain, it was used against Northern Ireland terrorist suspects between 1971 and 1975. Hundreds of people, almost all of them Catholic, were arrested. The politician who introduced the policy, Reginald Maudling, later admitted it was "by almost universal consent an unmitigated disaster."

It also was used in Britain against German citizens during World War II.

Lord Corbett, former chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, recently said that the sought-after powers resembled "the worst aspects of the Soviet Union and other repressive states."
 


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