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February 4, 2004

Britain: Tories, Civil Rights Groups Lead Strong Opposition to Secret Trials

by Sanjay Suri

A proposal for secret trials for suspected terrorists has run into a wall of opposition in Britain.

Civil rights groups, lawyers, the opposition Conservative Party and even Labour leaders have strongly opposed new proposals outlined by Home Secretary David Blunkett towards the end of a six-day visit to India last week.

Under these proposals British terror suspects could be tried at least partly in secret. The burden of proof would be lowered from the requirement of "beyond all reasonable doubt" at present. A suspected could be convicted "on the balance of probabilities."

A pool of security-vetted judges would hear evidence, and terror suspects would be defended by security-vetted lawyers. The lawyers would not be given sensitive evidence.

The judges would be able to rely on confidential information from security and intelligence sources, rather than the usual police charges presented in open court by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The proposals are aimed particularly at stopping suicide bombers. They seek to give the police the right to take "preemptive action" which would amount to detention based on intelligence information.

Britain introduced the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ACTSA) following 9/11 to hold secret trials and detain foreign citizens indefinitely. Fourteen men have been in detention without trial for close to two years now under this Act.

Some elements of that legislation would also now apply to British subjects if Blunkett has his way.

"This is the law of the jungle," chief executive of the independent Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) Habib Rahman told IPS. "This kind of thing is simply not on in any democratic society. Draconian measures were introduced earlier, and now there are more. We do not know where this is going to end."

The new powers are hardly likely to stop suicide bombers, he said. "There is no shortage of strong laws in Israel, but these bombings are only on the rise."

Britain's reputation as a country with civilized laws is bound to be tarnished by such measures, Rahman said. "There is no shortage of despotic regimes, and if Britain has such laws, with what face can it talk to the others?"

Labour member of the House of Lords and leading barrister Helena Kennedy told the BBC Radio 4's Today program: "It is as if David Blunkett takes his lessons on jurisprudence from Robert Mugabe (president of Zimbabwe). He really is a shameless authoritarian."

The Conservative Party which has traditionally been seen as the party of the right in Britain joined civil liberty groups in challenging the proposal by a Labour minister. Shadow home secretary David Davis said that the move to lower the burden of evidence behind closed doors was hardly "an advance in our justice system."

Davis said terrorists wanted to target the west because they "hate our civilization." He added in an interview on BBC: "What are we fighting for if we throw away the very freedoms we are fighting for?"

Amnesty International said that if implemented, these measures would "dispense with justice, the rule of law and human rights in the UK."

Amnesty said: "Instead of further undermining the rule of law and human rights, the UK authorities should start to pay attention to the concerns currently being expressed by people and organizations from many different walks of life."

The detention of 14 foreign nationals has "already created a small Guantanamo Bay in the UK," Amnesty said. "Any measures to extend these measures to UK citizens must be resisted."

While outlining his proposals, Blunkett had spoken in India on the need to "deal with these delicate issues of proportionality and human rights on the one hand and evidential base and the threshold of evidence on the other."

He said: "That is quite a challenge because we are having to say that the nature of what people obtain through the security and intelligence route is different to the evidence gained through the policing route."

The timing of Blunkett's proposal is being seen by many commentators as particularly unfortunate because it came only days before Prime Minister Tony Blair was forced to order an inquiry into intelligence reports that seem to have gone badly wrong.

These reports had suggested that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed within 45 minutes. That intelligence was cited as the justification for invading Iraq.

Now Blunkett wants laws to make allegations from discredited intelligence agencies admissible as evidence in secret court proceedings.

(Inter Press Service)

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