PARLIAMENT: CIVIL LIBERTIES - Terrorism Bill raises fears for protest rights

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The Independent Online
JACK STRAW defended tough new rules to combat terrorism yesterday as Labour backbenchers warned that groups such as the environmentalist Greenpeace could fall within the scope of the legislation. The Home Secretary stressed that plans to replace existing laws with a permanent definition of terrorism would affect very few domestic activist groups.

"The new definition will not catch the vast majority of so-called domestic activist groups which exist in this country today. I know of no evidence whatever that Greenpeace is involved in any activity that would remotely fall within the scope of this legislation," he said during the second- reading debate of the Terrorism Bill.

Challenged specifically on the position of animal liberation groups which break into research laboratories, Mr Straw admitted that there was a "thin dividing line. There are people who claim to be in favour of so-called animal liberation who have engaged in acts which have resulted in the most serious violence to individuals and placed people under threat of their lives.

"The horror of terrorist attacks is that they do not discriminate... the people who often get hurt are innocent, completely innocent."

The measure, he said, was aimed at deterring, preventing and, where necessary, investigating, the "most heinous" crime: "The Terrorism Bill is about protecting, not threatening, fundamental rights."

But Jeremy Corbyn, the MP for Islington North, warned that campaigning groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) were in the Eighties regarded by their governments as terrorist organisations.

Mr Straw sought to assure backbenchers that peaceful demonstrations would not be covered by the new measures. "This Bill is not intended to, nor will it, threaten in any way the right peacefully to demonstrate. It is not designed to be used in situations where demonstrations unaccountably turn ugly," he said.

While the Bill puts temporary counter-terrorist measures on a permanent basis, some parts relating specifically to Northern Ireland would be still subject to annual renewal. It would repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act but re-enact provisions giving the police special counter-terrorism powers.

Mr Straw said the new wider definition of terrorism, involving the use of "serious violence against persons or property", did not create a specific offence of terrorism itself.

David Winnick, the MP for Walsall North, said: "There are certain misgivings... that perhaps under a different government... civil liberties could be undermined or threatened."

Mr Straw said there was a "profound safeguard" against the disproportionate use of the powers, in the Human Rights Act that would come into force next year.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, called for the Bill to be considered in a Special Standing Committee so that more evidence could be taken into account.