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U.K.: Government Plans To Put Terrorist Suspects Under House Arrest Runs Into Opposition

Britain is debating what to do about suspected terrorists. Nine are still being held in a high security prison without trial, but the country’s highest court has decided they have to be either tried or released. The government says it would not be safe to release them, and it has proposed they should be kept in home detention in their own houses. However, the proposal -- known as “control orders” -- has encountered stiff opposition. An unlikely alliance of the opposition Conservative and Liberal parties, as well as police and intelligence chiefs and civil liberties groups has maintained -- in a rare agreement -- that they strongly object. Prime Minister Tony Blair held unprecedented consultations with the opposition leaders at his 10 Downing Street office today. The groups say they would prefer to see the government focus its antiterrorism efforts on using telephone tapping to gather information about suspects rather than curtail suspects’ civil liberties by house arrest.

London, 18 February 2005 (RFE/RL) --Opposition parties in Parliament are strongly criticizing the British government's house arrest proposals by saying they would erode civil liberties in the country.

Michael Howard, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party told Prime Minister Tony Blair in a recent parliamentary debate that the government has a duty to defend freedom even as it combats terrorism.

"Of course we must fight terrorism, but we must also be vigilant in defense of our freedom," Howard said. "It's of the utmost importance that in doing what is necessary to protect life, we don't lose sight of the need to protect our way of life."

Charles Kennedy, the leader of Britain's other major opposition party, the Liberal Party, said much the same.

"It is the fundamental duty of government to protect its citizens," Kennedy said. "The issue is that in so protecting its citizens, it must also uphold their fundamental civil rights."

In a sign that Blair appreciates the strength of the opposition's objections, he met with both party leaders today. That was despite the fact that they warned him beforehand they are not going to be swayed in their opinions.

The opposition leaders statements came as objections to the government's house arrest proposal mount not only among politicians but also other parts of society. The police forces and intelligence services say they are against it, and experts on terrorism are also critical.

Professor Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said that "if you are going to take that kind of extreme measure -- and I would have to say that I am not in favor of it -- you would have to have a constant presence in order to be able to make sure that the detention in the house was continuous and properly implemented. So, that would mean a constant surveillance -- a use of resources which the security service and the police can really ill-afford."

Wilkinson added that the house arrests would also pose another security problem, which would be impossible to eliminate. He said that "you would have to also sever communications with the outside world. So, there would be no telephone, there would be no computer -- quite comprehensive isolation of an individual."

But is there some other way? Some opponents of house arrest have suggested that telephone tapping of suspects could be an acceptable alternative. The evidence gathered might then be used to arrest and prosecute the suspects as necessary. However, moving to that alternative would require changing laws in Britain that currently do not permit using information gained from phone tapping as evidence in court.

The government has so far countered the wire-tapping suggestions by arguing that they also would be a curtailment of civil liberties. In the government's eyes, that makes them no better than house arrest.

But supporters of wire tapping say that misses the point. Doug Jewell, spokesman of The National Council for Civil Liberties, said that "our real concern is that people if they are suspected of serious crimes are charged and then put on trial, so that they can either prove their innocence or be proved guilty and imprisoned. We believe that allowing phone-tap evidence would make trials more likely, because that would be evidence that could be put before the court. And, this is much more preferable than just detaining people on suspicion."

Jewell said he accepts, however, that curtailing the freedoms of a handful of people by house arrests is potentially less harmful than curtailing the civil liberties of potentially hundreds or thousands of people by phone tapping. He also said he recognizes the danger that unlimited use of phone tapping could sow the seeds of a police state.

"There is always that danger, which is why we would want to see a much more transparent system of judicial approval for phone-taps," Jewell said. "So that we didn't go down that very dangerous road."

With emotions rising in Britain over how to control terrorism suspects, the debate over house arrest vs. wire tapping looks set to grow in coming weeks.

The outcome is certain to be watched by other countries that face the same crucial questions in the now global war on terror. That is, how to balance the protection of individual rights with the need to detect and prosecute terrorists before they strike.