Emergency laws to fight terror 'must be replaced urgently'

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Emergency powers allowing David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to jail foreign terror suspects without charge were denounced yesterday by senior parliamentarians.

A committee of Privy Councillors called for the measures, which were introduced after the terrorist atrocities in the United States of 11 September 2001, to be replaced "as a matter of urgency", suggesting the detainees could be electronically tagged instead.

Their conclusions were welcomed by human rights groups last night, but Mr Blunkett was unrepentant, insisting he would be failing in his duty to the public if he abandoned his internment powers. Seventeen people thought to have links with al-Qa'ida have been certified under Part 4 of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001, of whom 14 are still in detention. Six have been behind bars for more than two years.

The committee, chaired by Lord Newton of Braintree, criticised officials for failing to find other ways of dealing with the detainees. It said: "We consider the shortcomings ... to be sufficiently serious to strongly recommend that the Part 4 powers which allow foreign nationals to be detained potentially indefinitely should be replaced as a matter of urgency.

"Given the novel and contentious nature of these powers, we believe that there should be a continuous proactive effort to manage the individual cases of the suspects with a view to finding alternative ways of dealing with them [such as finding evidence that would support a prosecution].

"We were, therefore, surprised to learn that the authorities appear to have given no thought to what change in circumstances might lead them to conclude that an individual should be released or dealt with differently."

It added: "We are concerned that there has not been a sufficiently proactive, focused, case management approach to determining whether any particular suspected international terrorist should continue to be detained under Part 4. Nor did it appear that alternative ways of dealing with them were under active consideration."

The Privy Councillors, who included the former Tory chairman Sir Brian Mawhinney and former the Labour secretary of state for Culture, Chris Smith, said terror suspects should instead be prosecuted under normal criminal law. They warned the current policy could lead to miscarriages of justice and complained that Britain was the only country to have opted out of part of the European Convention on Human Rights to bring in the emergency powers.

The law should be changed to allow more suspects to be prosecuted, such as allowing police and intelligence services to tap their phones and requiring them to wear electronic tags, observe curfews and report daily to police stations instead of being jailed.

Their report revealed that, as nearly half of suspected al-Qa'ida terrorists in Britain were UK citizens, the current powers "do not meet the full extent of the threat". It said there was "accumulating evidence" contradicting the Home Office claim that they were foreign, citing the attempted shoe bomber, Richard Reid, and the British suicide bombers who attacked Tel Aviv in May.

Mr Blunkett said: "I believe I would be failing in my duty of public protection if the Part 4 powers were removed from the armoury of measures available to protect the United Kingdom from specific terrorist threats. I fail to see how the public would be adequately protected by electronic tagging."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, said: "The Home Secretary must now release or charge the detainees, who have been imprisoned only on the grounds of his suspicion ... It's the first time anybody with any weight has stood up and said this legislation is wrong, and it's something that we've been waiting and hoping for for two years."

Natalia Garcia, who represents two of the detainees, said: "We've said all along that it is a serious violation of human rights to detain people without charge."

Under the act, the Government can hold foreigners if it considers them dangerous and cannot deport them because they may be tortured abroad. They are, in theory, free to leave Britain if they can find another country to take them, as two have done. They can appeal to a special tribunal, but neither they nor their lawyers can see most of the evidence against them. Ten cases have been appealed, none successfully.

MAXIMUM SECURITY HM PRISON BELMARSH

Seven of the suspects detained under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act are in HM Prison Belmarsh, the high-security home to many of Britain's most notorious and dangerous criminals.

On Wednesday, Ian Huntley spent the first night of his life sentence at the jail, built in the 1980s on marshy land by the Thames in south-east London.

Other inmates have included IRA terrorists, the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, and the Soho nail-bomb killer David Copeland. At the other end of the scale, Jeffrey Archer, the former Tory deputy chairman, served the first 22 days of his four-year sentence for perjury at Belmarsh.

The 880-inmate institution, with an underground tunnel to Woolwich Crown court, and a closely-monitored hospital wing, is part of the Prison Service's high-security estate. At the centre of the 77-acre site, formerly part of the Royal Arsenal grounds, is an even more heavily-guarded "citadel".

Despite Belmarsh's maximum status, the prison has recently suffered embarrassing security lapses. In June, the Prison Service was forced to spend £40,000 on hundreds of new locks after an officer forgot to hand in his keys when he went home. And in October, Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, painted a bleak picture of conditions at Belmarsh, with some 300 security incidents reported each month, including bullying, drugs and gangs operating.

She complained that the regime was "significantly worse" than the average for prisons on such yardsticks as access to showers and telephones and time spent out of cells.

Her team spoke to the seven alleged "international terrorists", revealing that they were initially refused a telephone call to lawyers or relatives until their contacts had been cleared by the security department.

They echoed the complaints of other ethnic-minority prisoners not getting the services of interpreters and information in their native language.

Because of pressure on space in Belmarsh five of the other detainees have been transferred to Woodhill Prison, near Milton Keynes, and one to Dartmoor Prison in Devon, and one to an undisclosed prison. Like Belmarsh, Woodhill has a "prison within a prison", where the most dangerous inmates are kept in solitary confinement in cells with cardboard furniture and concrete beds.

They have included Charles Bronson, serving life for hostage-taking and Warren Slaney, a double murderer.

Nigel Morris