British Anti-Terror Law Reined In
Highest Court of Appeals Rules Foreign Terror Suspects Cannot Be Held Indefinitely
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
LONDON, Dec. 16 — Britain’s highest court of appeal struck a blow against the government’s anti-terrorism policy Thursday by ruling it cannot detain suspected foreign terrorists indefinitely without trial.
In a stinging rebuke to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, the panel ruled by 8 to 1 that the anti-terrorism act that authorized the detentions violated European human rights laws and were discriminatory because they applied only to foreign nationals and not to British citizens.
“The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these,” wrote Leonard Hoffmann, one of the eight Law Lords in the majority, referring to the anti-terrorism provision. “That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.”
The decision was hailed as a triumph by civil libertarians who have labeled as “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay” the indefinite detention of 11 suspects, most of whom have been held since December 2001.
Under British law, the last word on the legality of the anti-terrorism act belongs to Parliament and not the courts. But legal observers said the ruling would force the government to amend the law to either bring the men to trial or allow for less restrictive measures such as house arrest.
“It is ultimately for Parliament to decide whether and how we should amend the law,” said Home Secretary Charles Clarke in a statement . “Accordingly, I will not be . . . releasing the detainees, whom I have reason to believe are a significant threat to our security.”
Parliament adopted an amended anti-terrorism act in December 2001, in response to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, that allowed for the detention and deportation of foreign nationals accused of terrorism. In cases where the detainees argued that deportation to their host country could lead to their torture or killing, the authorities opted for indefinite imprisonment.
Eleven men are currently being held under the act, including Abu Qatada, a cleric whom the government has described as being the spiritual inspiration for leaders of the Sept. 11 attacks. Another detainee is Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian who was granted refugee status in Britain after he alleged he had been tortured in Israel. The others have not been identified.
In all, 17 people have been detained under the act. Three others have been freed, one released but charged under another provision of the law and two others voluntarily left the country rather than remain in custody. The detentions have been upheld by a special tribunal in secret hearings.