More lawyers threaten to quit over Belmarsh

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The Independent Online

The constitutional crisis provoked by the Government's refusal to withdraw anti-terror laws is expected to deepen this week with the resignation of more lawyers appointed by ministers to represent foreign terror suspects at secret hearings.

Five barristers are considering following the lead of Ian Macdonald QC, who declared yesterday his intention to step down from the 19-strong panel of special advocates in protest at the Government's failure to recognise the House of Lords' ruling that indefinite detention without trial is unlawful.

Mr Macdonald, who had been given security clearance to represent detainees before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), said he had acted "out of conscience" because of the "odious" nature of the emergency anti-terror laws rushed through Parliament in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

His departure is expected to be followed by other senior counsel, who are known to be openly critical of the Government and its response to the perceived terror threat.

More resignations will seriously undermine the legal system for reviewing the detention of 11 foreign terror suspects held under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

This year, the same five barristers joined Mr Macdonald to denounce government plans to extend the special advocate system for the representation of terror suspects in secret criminal trials. After the law lords' judgment, the five, Nicholas Blake QC, Andrew Nicol QC, Manjit Singh Gill QC, Rick Scannell and Tom de la Mare, are all understood to be considering their positions on the panel.

Mr Macdonald said that it was a matter for the consciences of the other special advocates as to whether they should also resign from the panel. But he added that the emergency terror powers were simply not tenable.

He said: "They [the authorities] must do what they did with the IRA, so that if they were suspected of committing a criminal offence then they should be tried in the normal way. If you have information then it must be turned into evidence. That is the way it should be done."

He said the present system of arresting suspected terrorists on "reasonable suspicion" only led to "sloppy policing", adding: "In light of the House of Lords' ruling that the Government response to terrorism was disproportionate and discriminatory, the Government must start again and immediately release the detainees."

He said Britain had reached a point in its history where "observance of the rule of law was something revolutionary".

The system of special advocates was introduced as part of the establishment of SIAC in 1997. At the appeal hearings judges sit mostly in secret and often in the absence of the appellant to review the intelligence and other evidence under which the detainee is being held.

Special advocates, who all have security clearance status, are allowed to see the secret evidence, but they cannot discuss it with their client.

Last night, Natalia Garcia, the solicitor acting for one of the detainees, called on the other special advocates to follow Mr Macdonald's "example" and stand down from the panel. She said: "I support Mr Macdonald's decision and hope he will not be the last. The Government should repeal these laws and release the men."

There was further concern last night that none of the 11 detainees had been able to see their lawyers to understand why, although the Lords had ruled that their indefinite detention was unlawful, they were not being released.