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U.K.: Council Of Europe Rights-Watcher Criticizes British Treatment Of Terror Suspects

Britain's treatment of terrorism suspects has come under sharp criticism from Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights. In a recent report, Gil-Robles strongly condemned so-called "control orders," which allow terror suspects to be held under house arrest without benefit of trial. Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the commissioner's report confirmed that the British government's counterterrorism strategy is "on the wrong track."

London, 13 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Imagine being subject to a curfew, forced to wear an electronic tag tracking your every move, and told who can and cannot visit you -- even though you have not been convicted of a crime.

That is what is happening in Britain under the government's antiterrorism legislation.

In his report last week, Gil-Robles strongly criticized the use of control orders and other antiterrorism measures.

His words were echoed by rights-watchers in Britain.

"Another international human rights watchdog has come out against the government's treatment of people suspected of terrorism and the Control Orders, which are serious infringements of human rights," said Doug Jewell, spokesman for the National Council for Civil Liberties in London.

According to the U.K.'s Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the British Home Office can use control orders to put suspected terrorists under house arrest.

British lawmakers introduced control orders in March to replace a provision allowing terror suspects to be indefinitely detained without trial.

But groups like Human Rights Watch say control orders are not a significant improvement over the old system.

Suspects can still be put under house arrest without benefit of an immediate trial. Trials are eventually required in some instances, but even then, judges may bar the suspect and his lawyers from the consideration of secret evidence.

This has raised worries that control orders may be founded in part on material obtained under torture from third countries.

Joseph Middleton, a human rights lawyer in London who has worked on a case involving evidence obtained through third-country torture, says that the threat of terrorism is very real, but does not excuse violations of human rights in the name of security.
Some 730 people have been arrested under Britain's antiterrorism legislation between the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States and March of this year.

"I think the criticism is very justified," Middleton said. "There are very good reasons to be extremely concerned with the control orders and other aspects of the response to the war on terror. What many people are concerned about is that what is being done, in some ways, goes far too far."

Some 730 people have been arrested under Britain's antiterrorism legislation between the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States and March of this year. Roughly 250 of them have been charged, but so far there have been only 21 convictions.

Antiterrorism measures have created anger in Britain's Muslim communities, which feel they have been unfairly targeted by the intensified police vigilance. Lawmakers argue the arrest statistics show no ethnic discrimination -- at the end of last year, twice as many Irish had been convicted on terror charges as Islamists.

But Middleton says the perception of police bias is strong among Britain's ethnic minorities -- and could ultimately leave them susceptible to the lure of extremist propaganda.

"People from, for instance, Muslim or other backgrounds -- where there might be potential for ill will -- and people who would otherwise be opposed to terrorism, will feel less opposed to it (terrorism) if they feel that in fact our system is unfair and disproportionate in the way it deals with suspected terrorists," Middleton said.

Gil-Robles, in his report, also said Britain's antiterrorism measures had a "repercussion extending beyond their impact on individual persons to entire communities." He condemned in particular the detention of children related to terror suspects.

He said the British government, by endorsing tactics like control orders, joins other countries who appear to view human rights as a "cumbersome obstruction" in the war on terror.