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Britain: Civil Rights Groups Condemn Moves To Counter Terrorism

London, 27 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Civil rights groups have strongly condemned new anti-terrorism legislation proposed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, saying it will give police too much power to secure convictions, and lead to human rights abuses.

The legislation was put forward by Blair following the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland almost two weeks ago, in which 28 people were killed and some 200 injured. It was the deadliest bombing in the British-ruled province for almost 30 years.

The new legislation would strengthen Britain's anti-terrorist laws by making it possible to convict a member of an outlawed terrorist organization on the sole evidence of a senior police officer, without giving the accused the right of trial by a jury.

Civil rights groups said the legislation will likely lead to the wrong people being accused and convicted, increase support for extremist organizations, and reduce respect for the rule of law.

Blair said yesterday the legislation is aimed at what he called "a small group of extremists" who he said are determined to wreck the peace process in Northern Ireland, which aims to end almost three decades of sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Some 3,400 have died since the present violence erupted in 1969.

Blair spoke after talks with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who has proposed similar anti-terrorist legislation in the wake of the bombing in the small market town of Omagh, west of Belfast

Public opinion in Britain and Ireland -- both north and south, Catholic and Protestant -- was outraged by the Omagh bombing, particularly as most victims were women and children. U. S. President Bill Clinton will go to Omagh on a visit to Northern Ireland next week.

Responsibility for the bombing was claimed by a group calling itself the "Real IRA". This is a splinter group of the Irish Republican Army, a mainly Catholic guerrilla group that has fought a long terrorist war aimed at ending British rule in Northern Ireland, and uniting the province with the Irish Republic to the south.

The "Real IRA", numbering 100 or so dissidents, has broken with the IRA because the mainstream body has joined the peace process, observing a ceasefire, and declaring that political negotiations, not violence, are the best hope for a solution in Northern Ireland.

In targeting the "Real IRA" -- based in the Irish Republic -- Blair says Britain and Ireland are "marching in step together" in a joint anti-terrorism drive unprecedented in their troubled history.

But rights activists say plans to jail people on the sole evidence of a single police officer will reduce the burden of proof presently needed to secure a conviction for terrorist links. There will be no jury safeguard, and cases will be heard by a judge sitting alone.

Critics say the legislation marks a return, under another name, to Britain's repressive -- and internationally deplored -- policy of the 1970s of internment without trial. Critics say internment boosted recruitment to the terrorist groups, notably the IRA.

A veteran left-wing legislator, Tony Benn, of Britain's ruling Labor Party, said over the years none of Britain's measures aimed at solving the Ireland problem -- including partition, direct rule, and internment -- had produced the desired peaceful solution.

Benn said the "draconian" new measures won't succeed either -- because they run against the spirit of the present peace process with its emphasis on genuine all-party talks. Julia Hall, of the international Human Rights Watch, said people throughout Britain and Ireland are "revolted" by the loss of innocent lives at Omagh. But she spoke for many civil rights activists when she said: "This type of repressive legislation cannot be the answer to providing justice for the victims."