EU judges say British anti-terrorism Act is illegal

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Britain's Prevention of Terrorism Act, used to exclude suspected Irish terrorists from the country, is in breach of European Union law, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled yesterday.

The Government faces claims for thousands of pounds in compensation from suspected terrorists who argue they were excluded under the unlawful procedure, and challenges to bans from the 36 people currently excluded from Britain under the Act.

The move will give fresh impetus to government plans to use the forthcoming Inter- Governmental Conference on the EU's future to seek curbs on the powers of the European Court. The back-bench MP, Sir Teddy Taylor, said yesterday: "It seems appalling that the non-elected European Court is telling the British government not only how to operate on terrorism, but how not to.

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, was excluded until this year, but the Home Office dropped the order after he began a challenge before the Luxembourg court.

Although the Home Office insists its exclusion orders have all been justifiable, until now it has never had to demonstrate that there had been independent backing for its judgment that a person "is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism connected with the affairs of Northern Ireland".

Stephen Grosz, solicitor for the former republican activist John Gallagher, who brought yesterday's case, said there were few safeguards against abuse of exclusion orders, but this would help.

A spokesman for the Home Office emphasised that the Act would remain in force. He said: "We shall consider very carefully the implications of this judgment. But it is clear that it does not question the power to make exclusion orders - it addresses only the procedures involved in making them," a spokesman said. "The power to exclude remains an important weapon in our counter-terrorist armoury. We don't propose to surrender that weapon until it is completely safe to do so."

The legal challenge was brought by Mr Gallagher after he had been excluded from Britain as a suspected terrorist. Ruling in his favour, the European Court declared that the operation of the PTA was a breach of the principle of freedom of movement, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome. The case will now go back to the Court of Appeal in London.

Mr Gallagher, 35, was arrested in London in September 1991 and served with an exclusion order. He was deported to Ireland three days later. He lost his job and his possessions in England.

He maintained that he had had no involvement in political or paramilitary activity at the time of his arrest, and challenged the ban. His exclusion order was lifted at the end of last year.