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U.K.: Civil Liberties Groups Upset Over Ruling Upholding Detentions

  • Jan Jun

Civil liberties groups and legal experts are upset over a recent decision by the British Court of Appeals that confirms the legality of the government's detention of 10 foreign terrorism suspects without charge.

London, 16 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Gareth Peirce is a lawyer who represents several of the British terrorism suspects, who are currently being kept in a high-security jail. On a noisy London street, in front of the Court of Appeals building, Peirce called the ruling a "horrifying low in British legal history."

"It's a moral crisis. It's a legal crisis. It's impossible to contemplate that this could be happening," Peirce said. "The only qualification that's made is that if it's British agents who are applying the torture -- then it is not permissible."

The suspects had argued that some of the secret evidence being used to hold them may have been obtained through torture conducted by the United States in Afghanistan or its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or in states where torture is known to be used.

Britain's Home Secretary David Blunkett seemed satisfied with the verdict, however. "I am pleased that my decision to certify these individuals as suspected international terrorists who pose a threat to our national security has been upheld by the Court of Appeal," he said, adding "the government's primary obligation is to protect national security."

A number of experts say that, while they understand Blunkett's reasoning, they strongly disagree with the court ruling.

"I think his pleasure is as a result of the outcome of this judgment, which means that they lost their appeal against being detained without trial," said Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "Blunkett believes that there are strong grounds for assuming that they are a threat to national security. Therefore, they must be kept in detention."
Under antiterrorism legislation, the British government has only to prove that authorities have "reasonable grounds" to suspect a threat exists.

Wilkinson noted that Blunkett made a statement strongly opposing the use of torture, but did not link it to these particular cases.

"Of course, there is a difference between the outcome of the judgment, and the issue of the acceptability of evidence gained under torture," Wilkinson said. "I, like many other observers, was very surprised to learn that the judges in this case had made their judgment partly -- if not wholly -- on the basis of information that may have been gained under torture, and I think that is an unacceptable position."

Barry Hugill, a spokesman for the National Council for Civil Liberties in London, said that the "British intelligence services are working very closely with intelligence services of countries where torture is routine, in particular the North African states Algeria and Morocco, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt." "These are countries, I am afraid, where torture is almost a matter of course," Hugill said. "And, indeed, people held in [the U.S. detention facility in] Guantanamo. We all know there are allegations of torture there."

Hugill said the ruling by the Court of Appeals endorsed the use of evidence obtained through torture in a very strange way.

"The court has said that it would be acceptable, as long as the British government did not know it had been obtained under torture," Hugill said. "It's a very strange judgment. They have said -- you can accept the evidence, but you must not ask where it came from. If you ask where it came from, and you are told: 'Oh, we tortured these people,' then you could not accept it. If you do not ask, then you need not worry how they got that information."

Wilkinson said the detention without trial of foreign subjects suspected of terrorism is part of new antiterrorism legislation in force in Britain since 11 September 2001. Under that legislation, the British government has only to prove that authorities have "reasonable grounds" to suspect a threat exists, not that a crime has actually been committed. The government also maintains the detainees could face torture or death in their home countries if deported:

"The government claims that this is a necessary measure, because the individuals concerned cannot be returned to their country of origin, because they might in fact face persecution or even death," Wilkinson said. "Therefore, the only alternative, they argue, if national security is to be preserved, is to detain them without trial."

What Wilkinson calls the "illogical aspects" of the latest ruling have given hope to the detainees' lawyers.

Hugill agreed that the matter is not yet closed, saying: "It will go on. There is an appeal going to the House of Lords later this year -- I think in November -- and hopefully, that will be successful."

For the latest news on the U.S.-led War on Terror, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The War on Terror".