UK climbdown on detention of terror suspects, a 'con'

Chris Gaynor

Britain's leading civil rights watchdog has slammed as 'cons, not concessions' the trumpeted climbdown by prime minster Gordon Brown on proposed controversial changes to anti-terror laws.

The UK government want to extend the 28 day period at which people can be held without charge to up to 42, and claim that a judge will be able to look at the case every week for the six week period.

On the BBC's Question Time on Thursday, foreign secretary, David Milliband, spun the usual party line by saying the government had a difficult balancing act to do, on the one hand protecting the rights of individuals, but, also, protecting the wider public from a terrorist threat.

But Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti, made a plea to the audience that if it was their son or daughter detained, they have a right to know what they are being charged with.

She said: "People have the age old right of knowing what they are being charged with."

Peter Hitchens, the media attack dog for the right wing tabloid The Daily Mail, said: "They (the government) couldn't defend us against pigeon droppings."

He added: "They made up some fancy claim that Saddam could launch weapons within 45 minutes to make out they could protect the public - because they failed in their domestic agenda on improving the public services."

"And they are doing it again here," he said.

Liberty have stressed despite the Government amendments, counter-productive extension of pre-charge detention would still be triggered to deal with individual cases rather than genuine emergencies, making the promise of increased Parliamentary oversight meaningless.

Writing on the Liberty website, she added: " "After all the dancing around invisible goalposts, these amendments give the game away.

Yet again in the  "War on Terror", sweeping, unnecessary and counterproductive powers are dressed up with convoluted fig leaves and frightening adjectives.

Forty-two days detention without charge has not been transformed into the emergency power promised by Ministers. The policy is as dangerous as ever."

Liberty claim the government's flaws in the amendments are:

 — Not Genuine Emergency Powers: The proposal has been dressed up with more language about  "grave and exceptional terrorist threats," but there is still no legal requirement for a terrorist emergency to exist and no requirement for the Home Secretary to show that 42 days detention is urgently needed to deal with any threat. Forty-two days could still become routine, triggered for operational convenience in individual cases.

 — Parliamentary Oversight: The amendments promise more Parliamentary oversight but, however diligent our Parliamentarians, this could not provide anything more than a rubber-stamping exercise. The 42 day limit would still be triggered to keep a particular individual in custody. This would, therefore, involve Parliament debating individual cases which could prejudice future prosecutions.

 — Judicial Oversight: The role of a judge in approving the use of 42 days in individual cases is of little comfort as, before a person is charged there is, by definition, no evidence for a court to test. No CPS application to detain a person for between 14 and 28 days has ever been refused. The courts would not be able to overturn these  "reserve powers" if triggered in a disproportionate or irrational way or in a way which breaches human rights.

For 10 months, Liberty's Charge or Release campaign has focused on building a cross-party political and public campaign against the unnecessary and divisive policy, which would create injustice and undermine community relations.

Liberty's Charge or Release campaign has the support of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, political activist Noam Chomsky, Pakistan's Human Rights Commissioner Asma Jahangir, designer Vivienne Westwood, former Chief Constable Geoffrey Dear, UNITE, UNISON, National Union of Journalists and the General Synod. Opposition parties and a large number of Labour back-bench MPs also oppose these proposals.