Control orders 'best option available' in terror fight

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The Independent Online

The Government should seriously consider retaining controversial control orders to keep tabs on suspected terrorists, a think tank said today.

The orders, while flawed and of only limited effectiveness, "perform an important function imperfectly" and not all terrorist threats can be tackled in the courts, the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) said.

It said the Government, which is reviewing its counter-terrorism strategy, "should seriously consider retaining the system while robustly addressing its deficiencies".

Critics of the orders, including human rights group Amnesty International, have accused the UK of operating a "secretive shadow justice system" for terror suspects which campaigners say must end.

But Robin Simcox, CSC research fellow and the report's author, said: "Members of the Government have called for the abolition of control orders but offered no viable alternative.

"No-one is saying control orders are perfect, but they are the best option available with the law as it stands.

"Not all terrorist threats can be dealt with in the preferred manner of convictions in British courts."

On the eve of the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks in New York, he went on: "The threat from al Qaida-inspired terrorism remains high, and those under control order have often been committed jihadists.

"Control orders help contain this national security threat."

A total of 45 individuals were subject to control orders at some point between their launch in 2005 and December last year, the report, Control Orders: Strengthening National Security, found.

Only 12 of these were in force as of the end of last year.

More than half of these (26) entered the UK seeking asylum, at least a fifth (nine) were British citizens and more than one in six (seven) have absconded.

In July, the Court of Appeal paved the way for terror suspects to sue for damages over legally-flawed control orders which breached human rights.

Three appeal judges rejected a Government challenge to a landmark High Court ruling allowing compensation claims, effectively giving the go-ahead for damages claims for loss of liberty and alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights dating back to 2006, when the orders were first imposed.

A Home Office spokeswoman said it would strongly resist paying damages and would minimise the level of compensation where it had no choice but to pay.

It comes after revelations earlier this year that the legal battle to maintain the system had cost more than £8 million.

Details of the spiralling bill were disclosed by the Home Office after it suffered a series of court defeats by terror suspects who claimed the detention arrangements breached their human rights.

But in a separate report, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, said in February that abandoning the regime entirely would have a "damaging effect on national security".

Control orders were introduced in 2005 after it was ruled that fanatics could no longer be held in prison without charge.

Originally, the orders were imposed on suspects without giving them the right to know any of the evidence held against them by the police and security services.

But in June last year the Law Lords ruled that was unfair, forcing two such orders on unnamed men to be revoked in order to avoid disclosing secret intelligence.

Restrictions imposed by control orders can include house arrest, electronic tagging, bans on contacting others, and limits on using bank accounts, as well as other restrictions.

Isabella Sankey, policy director for the civil rights group Liberty, said: "Control orders might work in Cloud Cuckoo Land but in the real world dangerous terrorists don't obey orders to stay in their living rooms wearing plastic tags.

"It's no surprise that nearly a fifth of 'controlees' have completely disappeared.

"Punishments based on secret intelligence and suspicion are simply no substitute for charges, prosecution and prison."

Abolishing control orders "is a safe political move that would allow one to appear as a staunch defender of civil liberties", Mr Simcox said.

But he added that the orders were useful and abolishing them could weaken the UK's ability to reduce the terrorist threat.

"At a time of a heightened terrorist threat, control orders are a useful national security tool," he said.

"An overstretched security service is dealing with a large number of UK-based al Qaida sympathisers.

"Rather than weakening the current national security structure, politicians should be strengthening the state's ability to reduce the terrorist threat; a Government abolishing control orders may well be doing the opposite.

"Without control orders, al Qaida-linked controlees would all find it easier to operate in the UK and commission acts of terrorism.

"Control orders perform an important function imperfectly. An incoming Government should seriously consider retaining the system while robustly addressing its deficiencies."

He added that the key reason why control orders were deemed necessary was "an inability to deport the initial foreign national terror suspects detained without trial in the wake of 9/11".

But he acknowledged that the orders "effectively rule out the possibility of a successful prosecution against those under them" but insisted that they "can be effective when routes such as deportation are not available".

The problem for those who back the system, he said, is that "it is impossible to prove that control orders have stopped terrorist attacks".

"The failures of the security service are better known than their successes."

A Home Office spokesman said: "Control orders are under review along with other counter-terrorism measures and powers and we will report back shortly."