LONDON – New anti-terror legislation proposed in Britain makes Guantanamo Bay appear liberal in some respects.
Britain has had its own Guantanamo Bay in the high security Belmarsh prison, where 10 foreign nationals have been held without charge and without trial for most of three years since December 2001.
A panel of law lords, the supreme legal authority in Britain, has declared the detention of the foreigners illegal. But home secretary Charles Clarke has now introduced legislation that would give the British far more sweeping detention and control powers than the United States or indeed any other country.
These include the power of house arrest of any British or foreign national, on the basis only of a suspicion stated by intelligence agencies. A detained person need not be told what he or she is accused of, or what evidence there is to warrant such detention.
A government minister can impose all sorts of restrictions considered necessary "for purposes connected with preventing or restricting further involvement by that individual in terrorism-related activity."
House arrest is only one option. Others are restrictions on the use of articles, services, or facilities; restrictions on work, association, communications, residence, visitors, or travel; a requirement to allow premises to be searched and items to be removed; allowing one’s movements, communications, or other activities to be monitored; and a requirement to provide information to a specific person or report to specified places.
Someone suspected by an intelligence agency of supporting terrorism on only "a balance of probabilities" can be incarcerated "in accommodation owned and managed by the government."
This range of measures has been divided into a "higher level" and a "lower level." The higher level includes house arrest. The lower level means anyone suspected by an intelligence agency will be forced to carry an electronic tag at all times, and have all movements monitored by a satellite surveillance system.
House arrest would require derogation from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Clarke says he does not intend to invoke that immediately, but the option is being kept "in reserve" and can be introduced at short notice. He has said the option would be used against only a few, and only rarely. A house arrest order would need to be backed later by both houses of Parliament.
The government would have the option to opt out of Article 5 only if there is an "emergency threatening the life of the nation" and then only "to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation."
The proposed legislation has raised a storm of protest despite such safeguards. After Britain has been shown to have gone to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence, few believe that intelligence should be allowed by law to place an individual under house arrest.
"Those of us who have experience in dealing with secret intelligence have great difficulty in accepting that something so speculative should be the basis on which liberty is deprived," said former foreign secretary Robin Cook.
"The bill removes, for the first time in modern times, the presumption of innocence of the accused," said David Davis, Conservative Party shadow home secretary. "It also removes the right of the accused to see the evidence and charges against them."
The bill would have to become law by March 14, when existing powers to detain foreign terrorist suspects expire. Under the new law, the 10 men detained in Belmarsh could then be moved out and placed under house arrest; an 11th has already been moved to house arrest. If ever let out, they could be tagged the rest of their lives.
The government wants the new Prevention of Terrorism Bill to be approved before March 14 when a part of the present terrorism act expires. The current act allows detention without trial only of foreign nationals.
"Charles Clarke’s proposals are going to have a very rough ride through Parliament," said Mark Oaten MP, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman. "It is wrong in principle and dangerous in practice to allow British citizens to be locked up in their own homes on the say-so of a politician."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, said "800 of the right to a fair trial in this country could be overturned within 14 days. The presumption of innocence, like innocence itself, is easier lost than regained. There has rarely been a more important time for people of all parties and none to stand up for Britain’s democratic traditions."
Amnesty International has also strongly opposed the new bill. "House arrest without charge or trial is no different from internment at Belmarsh, Woodhill, or Broadmoor," it said in a statement Wednesday. "It is still deprivation of liberty. The provisions for judicial involvement post facto do not alter the arbitrary nature of this bill."