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August 14, 2004

In the UK, a 'Terrifying' Judgment on Suspected Terrorists


by Jim Lobe

LONDON - After years of condemning torture in other countries, Britain could now be approving it as official policy.

New questions have arisen for the government following a two-to-one ruling by a court of appeal that said the British government had the right to accept evidence obtained under torture – so long as the torture took place in some other country.

The ruling was given in the case of a challenge by ten foreign nationals who have been detained without charge for more than two years on suspicion of involvement with terrorist organizations. Under Britain's Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the men can be detained without charge indefinitely.

The Act was passed soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the Labor government is sticking to it in the face of continued protests by civil liberty groups.

Lord Justice Laws said in his ruling earlier this week that the British Home Secretary has the right to rely on evidence "coming into his hands which has or may have been obtained through torture by agencies of other states over which he has no power of direction."

The ruling raises fundamental issues for the government's declared policies.

"The Prime Minister and his Home Secretary need to come clean on their attitude to torture," Barry Hugill of the civil liberties group Liberty told IPS. "Do they think it is acceptable or unacceptable?"

Hugill described the detention of the men as Britain's Guantanamo Bay. "These men are being held on the say so of unknown intelligence operatives. If they have committed a crime they should be put on trial, otherwise they should be released."

Justice Laws was supported in the ruling by Justice Pill. But in a dissenting judgment Justice Neuberger warned the British government against enjoying "the fruits of torture."

He ruled: "Democratic societies, faced with terrorist threats, should not readily accept that the threat justifies the use of torture, or that the end justifies the means. It can be said that, by using torture, or even by adopting the fruits of torture, a democratic state is weakening its case against terrorists, by adopting their methods, thereby losing the moral high ground an open democratic society enjoys."

Amnesty International said that in the two-to-one ruling the court of appeal had "shamefully abdicated" its responsibility. "The rule of law and human rights have become casualties of the measures taken in the aftermath of 9/11. This judgment is an aberration, morally and legally."

Amnesty added: "This caveat does nothing to prevent torture at the hands of agents of other states; in fact, it effectively encourages and fosters it. It is a fundamental duty of all courts to act as a bulwark against human rights violations."

The challenge has been made on behalf of ten of the 12 people being held at high security prisons in Britain. Two others have been allowed to leave Britain. Only one suspect, described as "M," has won an appeal against a certification describing him as an international terrorist.

The court ruling means that what is considered as evidence by police and the military taken from the suspects as Guantanamo Bay or at other places under other regimes can be used to keep these men in prison indefinitely.

Gareth Pierce, the solicitor who has been arguing the case of the ten men, said in a statement that the judgment of the court of appeal was "terrifying".

She said "it shows that we have completely lost our way in this country legally and morally. We have international treaty obligations which prevent the use of evidence obtained by torture in any proceedings."

A challenge to the ruling of the court of appeal on points of law could place the British government in an awkward position: it would have either to declare it will not honor its international obligations, or that it will change its own case that the court of appeal upheld.

Britain is also bound under a declared "ethical foreign policy" that it will not support regimes that resort to torture. Its new policy means that Britain can now accept evidence obtained under torture in those countries it has condemned for practicing torture.

The British government is now in a legal spot, and proceedings arising from its stand look set to be tortuous.

(Inter Press Service)


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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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