Sat, Dec 18, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Court leaves UK terror laws in tatters

CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS The Law Lords declared that indefinite detention without trial was unconstitutional -- and said the law itself was the bigger threat to the nation

THE GUARDIAN AND AFP , LONDON

A scathing judgment from the UK's highest court condemning the UK government's indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects as a threat to the life of the nation, left anti-terrorist laws in the UK in tatters on Thursday.

The ruling by an 8-1 majority held that the indefinite detention without trial at Belmarsh, and Woodhill high security prisons was unlawful under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Constitutional lawyers called it one of the most important decisions from Britain's highest court in 50 years.

But 24 hours after former home secretary David Blunkett, the law's sponsor, was forced to resign, the Blair administration decided to tough it out. They would study the judgment -- but made it plain they are more likely to renew the controversial laws than modify them.

Lord Hoffmann, ruled that there is no "state of public emergency threatening the life of the nation"- the only basis on which Britain is entitled to exercise its opt-out from Article 5 of the European Convention, the right to liberty.

It was the anti-terror laws introduced by Blunkett which posed a threat, Hoffman declared.

"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," he said.

The judgment adds to the clutch of election-sensitive law and order problems in the in-tray of Charles Clarke, Blunkett's successor as home secretary.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's office at No 10 Downing Street signalled it is "clearly minded to renew it" and Clarke chose to stress continuity with Blunkett's policies.

In a written statement to parliament after the ruling, Clarke said he would "not be ... releasing the detainees, whom I have reason to believe are a significant threat to our security."

On TV Police Minister Hazel Blears said judges who authorized detentions had seen intelligence data which the law lords did not.

"This is a matter for parliament to decide" in line with the European convention, she said. "Our over-riding concern is the protection of this nation."

Sixteen Muslims have been detained under the anti-terror legislation, with 10 still held in Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons and one in Broadmoor mental hospital. They are certified as "suspected international terrorists."

The ruling said the state should decide whether a state of emergency existed.

But they argued that the government's response breached the human rights convention because it went further than required. It was a disproportionate interference with liberty and equality and unlawfully discriminated against foreigners because British terror suspects thought to pose a similar risk cannot be locked up without charge or trial.

Another Law Lord, Lord Scott, described the regime under which suspects can be detained indefinitely on the say-so of the home secretary with no right to know the grounds for detention as "the stuff of nightmares, associated with France before and during the revolution, with Soviet Russia in the Stalinist era, and now associated, as a result of section 23 of the 2001 Act, with the United Kingdom."

The judgment does not oblige the government to release the detainees immediately, but under the Human Rights Act the government must take steps soon to remedy the situation.

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