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U.K.: Court Rules Against Detention Without Trial For Terrorism Suspects

  • Kathleen Moore

A court in Britain has ruled the detention without trial of nine foreign terrorist suspects is discriminatory and violates European human-rights conventions. The ruling delighted civil-liberties campaigners and appears to be a setback to the U.K. government's antiterrorism efforts.

Prague, 31 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Three judges sitting as the Special Immigration Appeals Commission found that the detention without trial of nine foreign terrorist suspects was discriminatory and violated European human-rights conventions, to which Britain is a signatory.

The nine Muslim men were detained under a new Antiterrorism, Crime, and Security Act adopted in December in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States. British Home Secretary David Blunkett, at the time, cited a "public emergency" to usher in sweeping new powers to hold without trial, for an indefinite period, anyone suspected of involvement in international terrorism and considered a threat to security.

But, crucially, that power to hold suspects without trial applies only to foreign, not British, nationals. Commission Chairman Andrew Collins said yesterday that this is discriminatory, since British nationals are just as likely to be involved in terrorist organizations.

The verdict appears to be a blow to the British government's efforts to crack down on suspected terrorists. It came a day after another British court freed an Egyptian citizen sought by American authorities on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to extradite him to the U.S.

The commission's ruling was welcomed by civil-liberties groups. Amnesty International said the nine men should be either charged or released and called for an end to indefinite periods of detention.

It was a sentiment echoed by Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of Britain's self-styled Muslim Parliament, an informal body set up 10 years ago as forum for Britain's Muslims. "We have always been against this terrorism act and the one before and we have always considered it an assault on civil liberties," Siddiqui said.

He said there is no justification for the emergency powers ushered in by the act. "Our position is that there is no emergency in this country and that Britain is not under threat in any way whatsoever. And the very fact that no [other] European country has reacted in the way that Britain has reacted obviously supports our position," Siddiqui said.

Britain's Home Office said it will appeal the ruling, and that for the time being, the nine suspects will remain in detention.

The special commission did accept the government's claim that detention without trial is justified because of the threat of terrorism. What's not justified, the judges said, is to apply the law only to foreigners.

Even if the government ultimately loses its appeal, the courts do not have the power to strike down the law just because it is deemed in violation of the Human Rights Act.

Colin Warbrick is an expert in international and human-rights law at Durham University in the U.K. "The government need do nothing. It simply says: 'We hear what you say. You say the legislation is incompatible. Until we take action to change that legislation it remains the law of the land.' That's when, of course, people would be going to [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg, but we would be talking a long time in Strasbourg. They may win and then the government would have to decide whether it complies with the Strasbourg judgment, which the British government always has [done], or whether it says, 'Well, this is a special case and we're going to sit it out [not comply],'" Warbrick said.

Another avenue for the government is to amend the legislation so that it is not discriminatory. That would mean extending the detention-without-trial provision to British nationals.

Whether parliament would approve this is unclear. The act was brought in while the scenes of carnage on 11 September and fears of further terrorist attacks were still fresh. Now, nearly a year after the attacks, lawmakers may be more reluctant to approve legislation that arguably further curbs civil liberties. And it could also present other fresh problems.

"The real difficulty that arises in practice, I think, is that at least there is the prospect of foreign nationals leaving the U.K. and therefore leaving detention, and two of the people who were originally detained have in fact left. But of course there's nowhere for British nationals to go and you would be saying, 'We can lock you up for as long as we think you're a risk,' which might be, if the war on terrorism goes on and on and on, for a very long time indeed," Warbrick said.

The appeal hearing on behalf of the Home Office is expected to be heard in October.