Appeal begins for terror suspects held in 'UK's Guantanamo'

'We say in a democracy it is unacceptable to lock up potentially innocent people without trial or without any indication when, if ever, they are going to be released'
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Nine foreign terror suspects who have been held in British prisons without charge for nearly three years began an appeal for their release yesterday in a direct challenge to the Government's emergency anti-terrorism legislation.

Lawyers for the detainees told a panel of nine law lords that the emergency measures, rushed through Parliament in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in America, were an affront to democracy and the internationally accepted notion of justice. If the law lords rule in favour of the detainees, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, will be forced to release all 11 foreign suspects, including two who were arrested later and are not part of the appeal.

The judges, who usually sit in panels of five, were told by Ben Emmerson QC, barrister for seven detainees, that it was "unacceptable to lock up potentially innocent people without trial or without any indication when, if ever, they are going to be released". He said government powers to detain foreigners without limit under anti-terror laws threatened the values they were designed to protect.

The nine men were arrested just after the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act came into force at midnight on 11 December 2001. A total of 17 foreign nationals have been detained under this law: three have voluntarily left the United Kingdom; one was freed last month by the Home Secretary; one was released under "house arrest" after a court ruling; and another is being held in Broadmoor.

Mr Emmerson said the men he was representing had been kept in custody for nearly three years on the basis that they might be supporters of international terrorism.

He said they had been given no idea when, if ever, they would be released, they had never been formally interviewed and there was no prospect they would ever be put on trial.

The barrister said: "Despite the complexity of some submissions in this case, the ultimate issue is really very straightforward." He said that while it was unacceptable to lock up potentially innocent people without trial, it was "doubly unacceptable for a democracy committed to the principles of equality and anti-discrimination to single out foreign nationals when it is not prepared to apply the same measures to its own nationals".

He said that no one could be in doubt that the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York on 11 September were a direct assault on the values of democracy. They represented a new brand of terrorism, highlighted by ruthlessness and disregard of human rights. He added that the reasons they were etched on the world's conscience was not just that they were perpetrated against the world's most powerful nation but because of the massive loss of human life.

Mr Emmerson said: "There is an inevitable temptation for parliaments and governments to fight fire with fire and set aside legal safeguards which exist within a democratic state. We can fall into the trap which terrorism sets for democracy and the rule of law by destroying those values."

Mr Emmerson said that the fundamental issue was whether a government could lawfully detain a criminal suspect without charge indefinitely. The Government argues that in times of emergency the United Kingdom is entitled to opt out of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to a fair trial.

Mr Emmerson said that the emergency law had been "wrongly adopted, and permitted measures fundamentally inconsistent with the core values of democracy and justice". He added that the Home Secretary had misconstrued the meaning of the expression "public emergency".

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, and Christopher Greenwood QC, the barrister who advised the Government on the legality of the war with Iraq, are to put forward the case for the Home Secretary. Last month, Mr Blunkett faced criticism of the emergency measures after one of the suspects, accused of links to al-Qa'ida and Algerian terrorists, was released without charge. The Algerian asylum-seeker, who is in his early thirties, is now free to live in Britain.

The man, known only as "D", was one of 12 foreign nationals being held without trial or charge at high-security jails in treatment that has been likened to the detention of suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

There has also been growing evidence that the detainees have been suffering mental health problems - chiefly because they have no idea when they might be released.

The House of Lords hearing is due to last for three more days.