One of Britain's most eminent judges on Friday accused the British and US governments of whipping up public fear of terrorism, and of being determined "to bend established international law to their will and to undermine its essential structures."
Lord Steyn, one of the longest-serving law lords in Britain's top court, the House of Lords, made the accusation while delivering his first public comments on the lords' ruling in the Belmarsh prison case.
He was forced to step down last year from the panel of judges hearing the challenge to the lawfulness of detention without trial for foreign terrorist suspects after the government took exception to earlier remarks he had made on the subject.
Last December the law lords ruled by 8-1 that the detention without trial of foreign nationals in Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons and the Broadmoor high security hospital breached human rights laws.
Lord Steyn's remarks yesterday came a day after a damning report from the Council of Europe's committee for the prevention of torture, which concluded that the treatment of some detainees "could be considered as amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment."
He was giving the keynote address to an audience of judges and lawyers at the annual meeting in London of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, whose chairman is Lord Bingham, the senior law lord.
The session was chaired by the appeal court judge Dame Mary Arden. The audience included Lord Brown, another law lord, Judge Luzius Wildhaber, president of the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, Sir Franklin Berman QC, former legal adviser to the British Foreign Office, and Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the deputy Foreign Office legal adviser who resigned over the attorney general's advice that the Iraq war was legal.
Lord Steyn hailed the Belmarsh ruling as "a great day for the law," and "a vindication of the rule of law, ranking with historic judgments of our courts."
He added: "Nobody doubts in any way the very real risk of international terrorism. But the Belmarsh decision came against the public fear whipped up by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom since Sept. 11, 2001 and their determination to bend established international law to their will and to undermine its essential structures."
As far as he could ascertain, he said, the Belmarsh case was the first in which a government had sought, and managed, to change the composition of the panel of law lords due to hear a particular case.