Britain rolls back on tough post-9/11 terror laws

DAVID STRINGER - Associated Press
January 26, 2011
Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons, London, following a Counter-terrorism review in this image taken from TV Wednesday Jan. 26, 2011. Home Secretary Theresa May published a review of the country's tough anti-terrorism laws, which acknowledged some powers had been "out of step with other Western democracies." Britain's anti-terrorism policies have long been considered one of the toughest in the West, allowing police to hold suspected terrorists for up to 28 days before they must be charged or released. In contrast, U.S. authorities have only seven days and French police only six.  (AP Photo/PA) UNITED KINGDOM OUT
Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons, London, following a Counter-terrorism review in this image taken from TV Wednesday Jan. 26, 2011. Home Secretary Theresa May published a review of the country's tough anti-terrorism laws, which acknowledged some powers had been "out of step with other Western democracies." Britain's anti-terrorism policies have long been considered one of the toughest in the West, allowing police to hold suspected terrorists for up to 28 days before they must be charged or released. In contrast, U.S. authorities have only seven days and French police only six.

Britain on Wednesday overturned some of its most unpopular anti-terrorism measures imposed after the Sept. 11 attacks, but stopped short of ending the contentious practice of ordering suspects not charged with any crime to live under partial house arrest.

Home Secretary Theresa May told lawmakers she had overhauled draconian powers which were "out of step with other Western democracies," but acknowledged stringent curbs were still needed to curtail a small number of extremists.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and 2005 suicide bombings on London, Britain introduced some of the toughest laws in the West, allowing police to hold suspected terrorists for up to 28 days before they must be charged or released. Tony Blair had made an unsuccessful bid to have Parliament approve a 90-day limit.

U.S. authorities have only seven days and French police only six. Under May's new regime, British police must now lay charges within two weeks.

"For too long, the balance between security and British freedoms has not been the right one," May said in a statement.

Police will no longer be permitted to carry out random searches of the public, or prevent tourists from photographing London landmarks on the grounds they are potential terrorist targets.

But May acknowledged that the government would be able to reintroduce a tougher regime on short notice if there were major fears of an imminent attack.

She also confirmed that Britain's most contentious power, a house arrest-style program known as control orders, would be reformed rather than scrapped.

The orders are used to handle suspects deemed a risk to national security, but who aren't accused of a specific crime and can't be deported because European law won't allow them to be sent to countries where they face possible torture.

Eight people — all British — are currently being held under the program, which can impose a curfew of up to 16 hours per day, require a suspect to wear an electronic anklet, restrict their contact with others and ban an individual from using the Internet or traveling overseas.

May said a renamed system will require suspects to wear an electronic tag and stay at a specific address overnight for about eight to 10 hours. An individual will have no Internet access via their cell phone, and only a limited ability to visit websites from any home computer.

Suspects could also be banned from visiting specific buildings or streets, and from meeting with certain people.

Human rights groups said the decision was a betrayal of the government's pledge to restore civil liberties after it took office in May.

"As before, the innocent may be punished without a fair hearing and the guilty will escape the full force of criminal law," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights campaign group Liberty. "This leaves a familiar bitter taste."

But unlike in the past, May said the High Court will need to grant prior approval for authorities to impose the new system. An individual must be freed after two years unless police can produce evidence of new terrorist activity.

The changes will also prevent most serious suspected terrorists being moved away from their family and potential conspirators. Ken Macdonald, an ex-director of public prosecution who oversaw the review, said that policy had been "a form of internal exile."

Lawyers said the changes don't address their complaint that suspects are told few details of allegations against them.

Control orders were imposed after Britain's courts outlawed the jailing of suspects without trial in 2004. A total of 48 people have been held under the measures since 2005.

Those currently detained include suspects tied to the 2006 plot to down trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid explosives, an alleged senior al-Qaida fixer and a man who repeatedly declared his desire to carry out a suicide attack.

May said police will now only be allowed to use powers to stop and search the public for short periods and at specific sites — such as around sports stadiums during London's 2012 Olympic Summer Games.

May's decision to roll back laws comes despite recent jitters among security officials over possible terrorist attacks against Europe. Nine men were charged last month over an alleged plan to attack Parliament and the U.S. Embassy in London.

She said many tough measures had alienated British Muslims, hampering the work of law enforcement to win their support and gather intelligence on extremists.

Since the 2005 London bombings, Britain has created new laws criminalizing speeches by clerics deemed likely to incite violence, and developed new offenses of preparing or assisting terrorism.