Throwing down a new challenge to the British government's tactics against terrorism, a High Court judge ruled on Wednesday that so-called control orders -- a form of house arrest without trial -- were incompatible with European human rights laws.
The government is expected to appeal the ruling, issued by Justice Jeremy Sullivan, while civil rights groups depicted it as a victory in a sharpening duel over the state's efforts to amass ever greater powers, ostensibly to combat terrorism.
The debate began after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. But it has become more intense in Britain following last July's bomb attacks in London.
If the government's appeal fails, it will mean the authorities will have to seek some other mechanism to continue holding the six suspects -- a Briton and five Iraqis -- whose cases prompted the ruling.
In his decision, Sullivan said control orders conflict with the right to liberty under the European Convention on Human Rights. The authorities, thus, had no power to make the orders, he ruled.
Control orders provide for the electronic tagging of terrorism suspects who have not been charged with a crime, and for their confinement to their homes for most of the day. So-called controlees may be forced to relinquish their passports and permit unrestricted searches of their homes.
The government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has displayed increasing irritation with the European human rights legislation, which was drawn up in 1950 and written into British law in 1998.
Control orders were introduced after Britain's highest court, the Law Lords, ruled in 2004 that indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects in prisons contravened the European convention. The orders can be used against Britons and foreigners.
Natalia Garcia, a lawyer for people held under control orders, said her clients were "prisoners without rights who have not been charged with an offense and who, it is now clear, are denied their liberty for political reasons."
The government argues that protecting the public against terror attacks and controlling the movements of suspects should prevail.
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