London, 4 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Under the new proposals, British terrorism suspects could go on trial behind closed doors in an effort to protect intelligence sources. Pre-emptive charges could be brought so that suspects could be put on trial before they mount an attack.
And in one of the most controversial items, defendants could be found guilty on weaker evidence. Jurors are now told they must be sure "beyond reasonable doubt" that a defendant is guilty. Under the new proposals, judges could convict on "the balance of probabilities."
British Home Secretary David Blunkett says the threat of suicide terrorist attacks makes it necessary to debate ways to deal with what he called "these delicate issues of proportionality and human rights." He said authorities need the power to act on intelligence information while protecting sources.
Britain needs to "strike a balance between the absolute need for security and democratic traditions, as everyone is entitled to be presumed innocent until proved guilty."
Some observers say Blunkett's proposals are designed to reassure the public that the threat of terrorism is being approached with all the required toughness. Others argue that Blunkett is simply yielding to pressure from the overstretched security apparatus.
While acknowledging the difficulty of protecting the public from terrorist threats, many politicians are worried the traditional values of a free society, such as the presumption of innocence, are being abandoned.
Humphrey Malins is a Conservative member of Parliament and until recently the party's Home Affairs spokesman.
"When one comes forward with proposals which are quite radical -- and, as I understand it, [Blunkett's] proposals about the balance of proof in a criminal trial are radical -- I think it's up to the proponents of the change to make the case for it. And at the moment, I would need some persuasion by the home secretary that he needs to take these powers."
Malins says Britain needs to "strike a balance between the absolute need for security and democratic traditions, as everyone is entitled to be presumed innocent until proved guilty."
Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain tells RFE/RL that Blunkett's proposals go too far. "We are very surprised, because not even at the height of the [Irish Republican Army] bombing campaign in the U.K. mainland in the 1970s and 1980s did we see the government of the time introduce measures such as the ones that David Blunkett is proposing. Holding people, and holding British citizens, and putting them before a judge, and not even allowing them to see the evidence that is being used against them because it is based on intelligence material -- this is a very worrying development. And we hope that the government will not accept it, and that these proposals will be thrown into the dust bin where they belong."
Other critics of the new proposals feel the threats from terrorism should be handled differently. Mark Littlewood is a representative of the British civil-rights watchdog Liberty.
"We passed a whole new package of antiterrorism laws just after the 9/11 atrocities, and there doesn't seem to be much compelling evidence to my eyes that by having this package of laws, by being the only country of the 40 or so signatories to have opted out of [Article 5 of] the European Convention [on Human Rights, which bans illegal detention], that we are actually any safer than the other countries in Europe. I think if we are serious about protecting ourselves against the terrorist threat, then what we need to do is to actually look at how our security and intelligence services operate."
John Upton, a U.K.-based civil rights lawyer, cautions against the state assuming almost dictatorial powers. "There are a number of issues there -- first of all, being what is actually the threat. And the fact is that the general public aren't in a position to know what that [threat] is. Secondly, I think that if we compromise totally our democratic processes, from that leads on the fact that the state has never said it does not want power, the state will always ask for power for itself. And so we are creating a situation of social hysteria in which the state will gather power into itself, and I think that is what we should be very, very careful about."
Upton says the defeat of such fundamental values of free societies is part of what the terrorists are striving for, and politicians should not help them achieve their aims.
Blunkett's proposals come at a time when Britain remains on high terrorist alert. Heavily armed police units still patrol the main airports and guard important buildings. Several trans-Atlantic flights were again canceled this week because of fears of a terrorist attack.
The public, however, seems to be tiring and discomforted by the frequent alarms. British Transport Secretary Alastair Darling had to assure Parliament recently that things will be handled differently in future: "The House [of Commons] will recognize there is an increased threat, and we have to deal with that in a balanced and proportionate way. Our objective is to ensure that we deploy all the security measures available to us, as and when appropriate, whilst at the same time enabling people to go about their day-to-day business."
Blunkett says he hopes to have the new legislation in place by the next national election, which must be held by mid-2006.