Law lords rule that terror suspects' curfews are 'virtual imprisonment'

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The Independent Online

The law lords have watered down the controversial control order regime for terrorist suspects and warned that the 18-hour curfews imposed on several men were breaching their human rights.

They disappointed civil liberties groups by ruling that the overall system was legal, but told the Home Office that the most severe restrictions amounted to virtual imprisonment.

Control orders were brought in nearly three years ago after the detention without trial of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh prison, south-east London, was ruled illegal. They gave the Home Office the power to impose daily curfews of up to 18 hours and restrictions on whom a suspect can meet and where they can go.

The culmination of a long-running series of challenges came yesterday in a complex judgment that fully satisfied neither civil liberties groups nor the Government. It found the draconian curfews imposed on six Iraqis were too harsh, with three of the five lords ruling that the Home Secretary should only be able to impose shorter curfews.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill said the suspects' situation had been similar to prisoners in solitary confinement. He said: "Their lives were wholly regulated by the Home Office, as a prisoner's would be, although breaches were much more severely punishable."

The courts were ordered to rethink two other cases because the suspects had not received a fair hearing. Lord Bingham, who led the panel of law lords, said the control orders had had a devastating effect on the subjects and their families.

They also threw out the system which allows evidence based on secret intelligence to be withheld from suspects, who are represented in closed hearings by security-cleared "special advocates" appointed by the Government. They ruled that the suspects should be shown evidence.

Eight of the control orders will now have to be re-considered by the High Court, although the practical effect is unclear because the Home Secretary had already issued less restrictive curfews.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "The authorities have rightly lost their most draconian 18-hour curfews without trial. While that is a body blow to Blairite policy, it is now left to the Strasbourg court or Westminster Parliament to restore the age-old right to a fair trial."

But Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said she believed 18-hour curfews had been necessary to "protect national security", but said the Home Office could impose 16 hours.

History of control orders

December 2004

Lords rules that detention without trial of the "Belmarsh detainees" is illegal

March 2005

Control orders introduced

April 2006

The High Court rules that an order imposed on "MB" is incompatible with human rights laws

June 2006

Orders against six men quashed

October 2006

Home Office admits two suspected international terrorists on control order have vanished. Others have since gone on the run

March 2007

Terrorist suspect AF won a High Court ruling he had been unlawfully deprived of liberty

April 2007

Control order on terrorist suspect Mahmoud Abu Rideh, who threatened to kill himself, overturned

May 2007

Home Office victory when judges allowed appeal against a ruling to water down a control order