Tony Blair (file photo)
Great Britain today began releasing a number of foreign terrorist suspects who have been detained without trial, as parliament continues to squabble over a tough new terrorism bill. The men, mostly North Africans and all Muslim, have been held without trial for months under powerful legislation passed in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. That legislation is due to expire on 14 March, however. And legislators in the upper and lower chambers have been locked in a bitter contest of wills over the new bill.
London, 11 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Debate on the terrorism bill continued today in both the House of Commons and House of Lords following an extraordinary all-night session.
Having already made some concessions to the opposition during the weeklong debate, the Labour government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to be in no mood to offer any more.
The bill has repeatedly passed in the elected House of Commons with a clear majority. But it has been bounced back again and again with additional amendments by the unelected House of Lords, which traditionally yields to the elected chamber.
Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke spoke in the House of Commons amid the tumultuous debate today.
"In 12 hours of debate and two rounds of consideration in the [House of Lords], there has been no movement at all. Two whole Lords sessions with zero response. It has been a stick-in-the-mud response, simply trying to put heals in the sand and prevent the elected house from carrying its proposal through," Clarke said.
The opposition says the new law would severely curtail civil liberties. The previous law allowed foreigners to be held indefinitely if they were suspected of terrorist activities. The new measure would apply to Britons, too. The old measure required Britain to suspend the right to a fair trial, guaranteed under European law. The new bill would, too.
Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice minister, outlined the opposition's position in the House of Commons today: "The importance is that the liberty of the individual must be protected, miscarriages of justice must be prevented, and if this antiterrorism legislation is to work and command public approval in all communities in this country, it must be seen to be transparently fair. It is extraordinary that the home secretary is prepared to tolerate a system that has manifest unfairness inherent in it. And the explanations he's offered for justifying it are, frankly, gobbledygook."
Yesterday, Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that the bill needs to pass as it is written, and not expire within a year of passage, as some have argued.
"It's time to get serious," Blair said. "We're talking about an issue where the advice is clear. We need these powers, and the idea -- after the House of Commons has been so clear -- that we should put some clause into it that cast the whole thing into doubt for the future -- no, it's time to be strong."
The debate comes as up to eight foreign detainees began to be released today, including Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, who has been called Al-Qaeda's spiritual leader in Europe. One foreign detainee was released on bail yesterday. All will be subjected to strict conditions of movement.
The releases were ordered by the High Court after the existing terror law's detention-without-trial statute was successfully contested.
The U.K.'s metropolitan police chief, Ian Blair, yesterday called the foreign detainees a threat to the safety of the British public. He said any delay in passing the new legislation would only bring comfort to Al-Qaeda. He said a real threat of terrorist attacks exists in Britain from Al-Qaeda-trained "sleepers."
But many rights groups are opposed to the new legislation. Doug Jewell, a spokesman for Liberty, also known as the National Council For Civil Liberties, said: "Yes, Liberty believes that this legislation is fundamentally flawed. Because, at the end of the day, it rests upon secret evidence heard by either judges or politicians, and people being denied their liberty on the basis of suspicion. This can never be right and can only lead to miscarriages of justice."
Jewell said Britain already has some of the toughest antiterror legislation in the world. "[Yes,] there are things that we can improve. We would like to see intercept evidence brought into court -- wiretap evidence -- so that it would be easier to put people on trial. But, by and large, what we need is better intelligence, not yet more laws."
Legal experts say the parliamentary battle could go on until 13 March. If the new law is not in place by then, the government could temporarily extend the existing law. It could also blame the security vacuum on the opposition and call for an early general election, a move Blair played down in comments to the media today.