Foreign terror suspects pay 'political price'

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The Independent Online

The indefinite detention of foreign terrorist suspects in British prisons is an act of discrimination in fundamental breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, the House of Lords heard yesterday.

The indefinite detention of foreign terrorist suspects in British prisons is an act of discrimination in fundamental breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, the House of Lords heard yesterday.

David Pannick QC, representing the civil rights group Liberty, argued that the only reason that British citizens were not subject to the same draconian law was because the "political price" was too high.

In an historic challenge to emergency legislation rushed through Parliament in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on America, lawyers for nine of the 11 detainees still being held in British prisons accuse ministers of failing to respect basic human rights.

Mr Pannick, who has often appeared in court to represent the interests of the Government, said the Home Secretary had ordered the men's detention on grounds of crime and not immigration as government lawyers had suggested.

He said if that was the case then why did the 2001 anti-terrorism law not apply to British citizens? The answer, said Mr Pannick, was that ministers knew it would be unacceptable to Parliament and the British public. By not extending the laws to British citizens, the Government was in direct breach of article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of nationality. Mr Pannick told the court that he was not making an argument for detaining British suspects on similar grounds to the foreign nationals in Belmarsh and other prisons but one that demonstrated the unfairness of the emergency anti-terrorism laws.

Nine foreign terrorist suspects have been held in British prisons without charge for nearly three years. Two others have been detained for nearly as long. None of them are aware of have been told what accusations they are facing.

Yesterday, Ben Emmerson QC, representing seven of the men, argued the emergency measures were unacceptable in a modern democracy as well as in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998. The nine men were arrested a few days after the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act came into force on 11 December 2001. Seventeen foreign nationals have been detained under the law.

Three of the men 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 held in Broadmoor.

Mr Emmerson said the men had been kept in custody for nearly three years on the basis they might be supporters of terrorism.Mr Pannick said that if the law lords found in favour of the appellants, they would not be required to strike down legislation, only consider whether to declare it incompatible with the Human Rights Acts 1998.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, representing the Home Secretary, argues Britain is at risk from international terrorists and no responsible government could have failed to give careful consideration to an appropriate response.

The hearing continues today.