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U.K.: Law Lords Ruling On Torture Affecting Status Of Terror Suspects

Wreckage from the London bombings on 7 July (epa) Has Britain allowed evidence obtained under torture to be used in its courts? British authorities are reexamining evidence in the cases of several foreign terrorist suspects who are awaiting appeals trials. The move follows a recent ruling by the Law Lords, the highest legal authority in Britain, which concluded that secret evidence possibly obtained under torture abroad can never be used in British courts.

London, 19 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The ruling by the Law Lords reaffirmed that evidence obtained under torture anywhere in the world should never be admissible in British courts.

Human rights groups, defense lawyers, and Muslim organizations have hailed the decision. The government maintains it does not rely on such evidence, but has nevertheless begun to reexamine the cases of several foreign terrorist suspects. Some have been released on bail.

"My understanding is that the cases that were the subject of the appeal have been sent back for the commission to consider whether there is, or appears to be, evidence that might have been obtained by torture," said Joseph Middleton, a human rights lawyer in London. "There are some difficult, complicated legal issues about who has to prove that torture was used, and to what standard do they have to prove it."

Middleton said the Law Lords' ruling changes everything.

"The government had said if evidence has been provided by torture, then that’s something simply that we will bear in mind, but that won't of itself prevent us from taking it into account," Middleton said. "And the House of Lords has said, 'No, that's wrong. You do not have the option of simply giving it relatively less importance than you would otherwise have given it.'"

Reports suggest that there are 30 such cases in various stages of appeal.

Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), said that group has been closely following the cases of eight foreign detainees.

"The eight people reside in Britain. None of them are British nationals," Bunglawala said. "The government has kept them under detention. They have not been charged with any crimes. We don't know even all of their names. We know one of them: Abu Qatada. Many of the others, we simply do not know."

Bunglawala said the MCB welcomes the Law Lords ruling. He said there has been a lot of concern in the Muslim community about people being detained without charge in recent years, in some cases allegedly based on evidence obtained at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Middleton said the difficulty is that much of the evidence is not divulged to the appellants themselves. They must rely on a special advocate. He acts on their behalf, but is not allowed to tell them what the secret evidence is. He can look at the evidence, consider the source of the evidence, and in cases where it could have originated in countries with bad reputations, dispute the validity of the evidence.

Middleton said the ruling, therefore, is "just another step, but it is an exceedingly important step in the right direction, and clearly a very positive decision."

He said some terrorist suspects will have to be released, as is currently happening.

"You can't afford to be detaining people merely on the basis of something that somebody said when they were having their eyes gouged out in a camp in Afghanistan, or their fingernails pulled out in some other place where they've been tortured," Middleton said. "You can't use that as a basis. So, yes, there may be situations where people are released."

British Home Secretary Charles Clarke has said the government will not present or rely on evidence that could have been extracted under torture. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), however, has now granted conditional bail to five of the eight foreign terrorist suspects mentioned by the MCB. It is deciding on what restrictions they should be subjected to while their appeals are being considered. Three others have been refused bail.

A statement from the Home Office said it is disappointed that the SIAC granted the suspects bail because they are to be deported. It says their presence in Britain "is not conducive to the public good for reasons of national security." The statement adds that the outcome of the bail hearing "is no indicator of the eventual outcome of the appeals."