Recent terror attempts in the UK may make it easier for the new government to introduce controversial anti-terrorism measures, including extending pre-charge detention for terror suspects.
By Caroline Tosh in London for ISN Security Watch (13/07/07)
By Caroline Tosh in London for ISN Security Watch (13/07/07)
Terror attacks in London and Glasgow this month ensured a baptism of fire for Prime Minister Gordon Brown and served as a reminder that two years after 52 people were killed by explosions on London's public transport system, the UK remains a prime target for terrorism.
Two un-detonated car bombs containing petrol, gas cylinders and nails were found in separate cars in London in the early hours of 29 June. The following day and more than 480 kilometers away, a Jeep filled with gas cylinders and fuel ploughed into the check-in entrance at Glasgow Airport, exploding as it hit.
The new government has been praised for its response to the botched attacks, over which eight suspects have so far been detained, and has resisted any impulse to use this as an opportunity to push through draconian anti-terror laws.
But as the UK breathes a sigh of relief at having narrowly averted bloodshed, speculation has begun that this may make it easier for the new government to introduce controversial measures when the anti-terror bill is announced in the fall.
New Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has already suggested in the wake of the attacks that an extension to pre-charge detention for terror suspects may be on the cards.
"There may well be a case for looking very carefully at the amount of time that we are able to detain people pre-charge in order to ensure the very best opportunity to bring convictions," she told MPs in a Commons' statement on 2 July.
While Brown indicated last month at a Labour Party meeting on 3 June, before his premiership began, that he planned to seek an extension to the time a suspect can be held without charges beyond the current limit of 28 days.
Brown said he was ready to be "tough in the security measures that are necessary to prevent terrorist incidents in this country," while stressing that he would protect civil liberties with judicial oversight and parliamentary accountability.
Other measures that may also be introduced in the upcoming bill are the right to submit intercept evidence - gleaned from intercepting communications as they are transmitted via a postal service, telephone or email - in a criminal trial and to continue questioning suspects after they have been charged.
Deterrent or catalyst?The new government has promised to seek cross-party support and consult Muslim representatives over new legislation in what has been interpreted as a more consensual approach to terrorism.
In the past, proposals to extend pre-charge detention have met with violent opposition, from both politicians and human rights groups.
Tony Blair's government suffered its first Commons defeat in 2005 when MPs voted against proposals to increase pre-charge detention from 14 days to three months, and had to settle for a compromise of 28 days.
But in the days following the recent attacks, Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, the British government's independent reviewer of terror laws, suggested an extension may be necessary to help tackle the ongoing terror threat.
In an interview on the BBC program HardTalk on 5 July, he suggested that four weeks' pre-charge detention may not be long enough in certain terror situations, adding that there may be cases "where computers are so well encoded that it's not possible to break into them within 28 days."
But Jen Corlew of the human rights group Liberty told ISN Security Watch that holding a suspect for longer than 28 days without charge was classified as "internment."
She warns that such a measure could end up being counterproductive, giving the example of the situation in Northern Ireland, where use of internment became - in the words of former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Lord Tom King - the IRA's "greatest recruiting sergeant."
"The lesson that we've [learned] from Northern Ireland is that internment can actually end up helping terrorist recruiters because people feel there's been an injustice," Corlew said.
She supports other proposals being considered to give greater powers to police and prosecutors - with precautions in place - to allow them a chance to gather more evidence so that suspects can be charged and prosecuted, rather than just being held for a long period of time.
Liberty also welcomes Brown's intention to call for a Privy Council review on the use of intercept evidence in court - a measure it has been suggesting for years - but one which the UK's security services are thought to oppose, fearing it will reveal their methods.
Checks and balancesDr Daniel Moeckli, of the School of Law at the University of Nottingham, is unconvinced that the police want or need powers to extend pre-charge detention. He suggests that such a proposal could be interpreted as a political move to make the authorities appear to be tough on terrorism.
"As far as I understand there hasn't been a single case where police would have thought it necessary to detain someone for longer than 28 days," he said.
Like Corlew, Moeckli says it is important to look at lessons learned from counterterrorism measures applied in the past.
"From Northern Ireland, we know that internment had negative consequences, as people became more radicalized in prison and there was actually a rise in violence after internment was introduced," he said.
He agrees that allowing intercept evidence to be submitted in court is a viable alternative to extended pre-charge detention and is something all other European countries except Ireland allow.
But Dr Paul Cornish, head of the International Security Programme at UK-based foreign policy think tank Chatham House says the submission of intercept evidence should be handled carefully.
"If there are good reasons for national security not to reveal this information or evidence in court, and then as a result [of revealing it] we find ourselves in a less secure position, then clearly we've got to do something to fix that," he said.
Cornish is sympathetic to proposals to extend pre-charge detention - provided this is accompanied with proper checks and balances, such as an oversight committee or an annual review.
"When I talk to people in the police [...] the sense I get is not that the 90-day [proposal] is regarded as a repressive measure in any sense. They argue that they simply need enough time," he said.
He says it is understandable that police would like longer than 28 days to gather evidence in terror cases, where they may be investigating hugely complex networks.
But Dr Brian Brivati, professor of contemporary history at Kingston University, says that before rushing to introduce any anti-terror measures, it is important to establish first if they will actually help combat terrorism.
"There's kind of a presumption that greater powers, more intrusive powers will help. Has that been proven? Is it proven that the police are asking for these measures?" he asked.
Brivati told ISN Security Watch that it was not clear whether extended pre-charge detention "will make any difference to our ability to stop terror attacks."
"It looks to me like a form of selective internment is where [the authorities are] heading, he said.
He believes introducing more restrictive measures not only means breaching human rights legislation, but also risks further alienating people who may then become more receptive to recruitment into radical groups.
Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation is also concerned that proposals to extend pre-charge detention may be revived.
"There has been no evidence available that the current 28 days is insufficient, so I would have some difficulty supporting 90-day detention on the basis that people have a right to due process, legal representation, and to know if they're being charged," he told ISN Security Watch.
Shafiq notes with disappointment that the last government failed to implement most of the recommendations of a taskforce set up to tackle extremism in the aftermath of the 7 July London bombings.
The Brown government has an opportunity to set a new course in tackling terrorism, he said, adding that he would wait for the bill to be formally announced before passing judgment.
"It's early days for this government and the new prime minister. We'll have to wait to assess whether he's been good or not," he said. "We've got to see a better response from the government."
Caroline Tosh is a London-based correspondent for ISN Security Watch and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.