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U.K.: Should British Terror Trials Consider Evidence Gained Through Torture?

(AFP) Judges from Britain's upper chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords, are considering whether evidence obtained through torture abroad should be permitted in British courts. Ten foreign terror suspects now in British custody have appealed a ruling last year that such evidence could be used. Rights groups have backed their appeal, saying human rights should enjoy the same protections as national security concerns. But Britain's security services say that when the lives of public citizens are under threat, questions about where and how evidence was obtained are of secondary importance.

London, 24 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Fourteen human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, are backing the appeal, which was lodged last week by the 10 terror suspects, all being held without charge at Britain's Belmarsh high-security prison.

They are hoping to overturn a ruling last year by Britain's Court of Appeal confirming that courts could use evidence obtained abroad through torture.

Dallal Stevens, a lecturer in human rights law at England's Warwick University, explained last year's ruling. "From the judgment that the Court of Appeal passed down, it does seem to be saying that it is acceptable for the secretary of state [of the Home Department] to use information that has been obtained under torture if he hasn’t procured it or connived in it," she said. "So, that’s the reason this is so important, because it’s obviously sending out a signal to countries around the world [that torture is acceptable]."

The 10 foreign terror suspects are being held under the 2001 Antiterrorism Act, which allows the British government to hold a non-U.K. national in prison indefinitely without charge or trial, and drops the requirement that they have access to the evidence against them.

It is thought that much of the secret evidence against them came from intelligence services in Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan, where torture is believed to be used as part of interrogation methods.

Livio Zilli of Amnesty International in London said it is crucial that the torture ruling be overturned. "Many resolutions by the [UN] Security Council, the General Assembly, and many other intergovernmental bodies in connection with the so-called fight against international terrorism stressed that there could be no compromise in upholding the rule of law, fundamental human rights, humanitarian law, and refugee law," Zilli said.

The torture ruling, however, has the backing of the government and the state security forces. Stevens said Britain's MI5 intelligence service has argued that the right to public safety is a higher priority than protecting the rights of suspected terrorists.

"Clearly, in this heightened environment now with terrorism, there's always going to be the argument that somebody from the MI5 might be putting forward -- that they need information in order just to save lives. There is a certain line which they’re prepared to cross, it seems," Stevens said.

In a statement to the House of Lords, MI5 stressed that security services in Britain do not know how intelligence information from their counterparts abroad has been obtained. But, it said, such information is important because it saves lives. It cites as an example the so-called ricin plot. Authorities arrested a man suspected of plotting to spread the deadly poison on the streets of Britain, using information from Algerian security services, which are believed to use torture.

Stevens said she has concerns about such arguments. "I think it’s right they say they can’t possibly look into every piece of information that they have obtained, and check the provenance of it, where it has come from, and interrogate everything in relation to information that they received," she said. "But they don’t draw that line necessarily."

Stevens said this also means that it is not clear what they would do if they knew that torture was involved.

Zilli said the best route to public security is through upholding human rights. There is no security concern grave enough to make permissible evidence gained through torture. "If such evidence can be admitted, and it’s just a question of weight, that would send a clear signal to torturers worldwide that they have a green light for their acts of torture, because the product of that torture would be received in court proceedings in the U.K.," Zilli said.

A judgment in the case is not expected for weeks or even months.

In the meantime, however, the government's case has been weakened by a new development. Judges serving on Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled on 20 October to grant bail to four of the 10 detainees involved in the appeal, saying they do not represent a significant security risk. The four will be released and subject to house arrest.