Terror laws in disarray after Woolf frees Libyan

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The Independent Online

The Government's powers to detain without trial suspected foreign terrorists was dealt a serious blow yesterday when the Lord Chief Justice ordered the release of a Libyan man accused of having links with al-Qa'ida.

Lord Woolf said yesterday that the 16-month imprisonment of a 37-year-old Libyan, known only as M, under the emergency anti-terrorism legislation was unlawful.

Last night, hours after the ruling, the man was freed from Belmarsh prison in south-east London, greeted by friends who had waited outside as he was driven past.

Lawyers for the remaining 12 foreign nationals still held in high-security prisons around the country called for an immediate review of their continued detention.

M's solicitor, Gareth Peirce, said immediately after the ruling that she had been unable to contact M at Belmarsh prison but hoped he would be reunited with his family shortly. She said it was difficult to predict how he would be able to support himself once released from jail.

Describing her clients 16-month detention as a "blip", she said that M was an "intelligent, highly educated man with qualifications."

Lord Woolf, giving yesterday's judgment in the Court of Appeal, acknowledged that there was some evidence which raised suspicions about M. But he said that it did not necessarily amount to reasonable grounds for holding him indefinitely without trial or charge.

Rejecting a legal challenge by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, Lord Woolf said that the earlier decision by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) to release M from Belmarsh prison should stand.

"It has not been shown that this decision was one to which SIAC was not entitled to come because of the evidence, or that it was perverse, or that there was any failure to take into account any relevant consideration." And therefore, ruled Lord Woolf, the Home Secretary had failed to show that the decision was "defective in law". He refused permission for the Home Secretary to appeal to the House of Lords.

Lord Woolf added: "While the need for society to protect itself against acts of terrorism today is self-evident, it remains of the greatest importance that, in a society which upholds the rule of law, if a person is detained as M was detained, that individual should have access to an independent tribunal or court which can adjudicate upon the question of whether the detention is lawful or not. If it is not lawful, then he has to be released."

M, who is expected to bring a compensation claim for wrongful imprisonment, was the first of 13 people held under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act to successfully appeal against his detention. The Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced after the 11 September attacks in the US, allows for the detention without charge or trial of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in international terrorism, but who the Government are unable to deport. One of the 12 still held under the legislation is Abu Qatada, suspected of being al-Qa'ida's main representative in Europe.

Wyn Williams QC, for the Home Secretary, said in open court that SIAC had accepted M was a member of an extremist Islamic movement in Libya, that he had fought with fellow mujahedin in Afghanistan and had been involved in procuring arms to attack Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime. He said M had also transferred money to Fahdal Saadi, who is suspected of having links with al-Qa'ida. Mr Williams said it was a central point of the appeal that SIAC accepted that M by his actions had provided support and assistance to al-Qai'da and its associated networks. But Ben Emmerson QC, representing M, had argued that the assessments of M on which the Home Secretary relied were not supported by the evidence.

Ms Peirce said she did not understand why SIAC had decided to free Mr M but dismiss the applications of 12 other men held without trial by the Government. She said: "We see no difference. We have read the judgment from SIAC from start to finish and we have seen what little evidence there is to see and we have deep concern that there are many other people who are equally wrongly detained." The 12 terror suspects are now expected to mount a legal challenge against their internment by appealing separately to the Court of Appeal. Three more suspected foreign terrorists held under emergency terror laws are still to have their cases reviewed by SIAC.

A spokesman for the Home Office said yesterday: "We intentionally created a robust system to provide legal scrutiny of the certification. We gave the courts the power to overturn decisions. That has happened today, showing that the system works. In 12 of the 13 cases it has been decided that the powers have been used appropriately, showing that the system works. We do not think that one decision undermines the wider policy."