Terrorism: Where freedom and law collide

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The Independent Online
For any democracy, dealing with alleged terrorists seeking asylum from abroad involves a difficult balancing act. The Government has to reconcile the likely impact on its bilateral relations with the other country involved - in this case Egypt - and its commitments to combat terrorism, against obligations under international treaties.

The result can often be to upset both human rights campaigners and the terrorists' home-government.

In the United Kingdom, all applications for asylum are individually considered, under the terms of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and a later 1967 Protocol. Even if someone is categorised as a terrorist applying for asylum, they cannot simply be shipped back to their home country. Under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, soon to be incorporated into British law, a terrorist cannot be returned to a country where he or she fears "cruel or degrading" treatment. People considered to be plotting in this country to cause terrorist acts elsewhere can be prosecuted, but such cases are rare.

A recent report into anti-terrorism laws by Lord Lloyd of Berwick described the lack of a general offence to conspire to commit such acts abroad as a "major gap" in British law.

It is an area which Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is to consider in the review of anti-terrorist legislation. However, Mr Straw has himself raised the issue of the "Mandela" question. Would a democracy wish to treat those fighting against oppression, as the ANC were against the apartheid regime, in the same way as other supposed "terrorists"?

At the same time Mr Straw has made it clear he wants to toughen up on extremist groups using Britain as a fund-raising base. And as the focus on Irish terrorism fades, however temporarily, more attention is being given to the question of extreme Islamic groups using Britain as a centre for their operations.