David Blunkett was condemned by lawyers and human rights groups yesterday after he suggested a radical strengthening of anti-terrorism laws in an effort to thwart al-Qa'ida suicide attacks.
His proposals included lowering the burden of proof to secure the conviction of terrorists, the arrest of suspects before an atrocity is committed using MI5 or MI6 intelligence and holding trials in secret to prevent the security services being compromised.
Critics said the plans flew in the face of natural justice, with one leading lawyer saying that they showed Mr Blunkett was not fit to be Home Secretary.
Laws brought in after the 11 September attacks allow the detention without trial of foreigners suspected of plotting attacks in this country. And Mr Blunkett signalled yesterday, during a trip to India and Pakistan, that he backed further legislation aimed at al-Qa'ida sympathisers who were British citizens.
They could face "pre-emptive" charges, which would see them accused of plotting an outrage before it had happened, and be convicted "on the balance of probabilities" rather than "beyond reasonable doubt". Such trials would be held without juries behind closed doors. They would be presided over by judges vetted by the secret services. State-appointed lawyers defending the accused would also have to be vetted and some evidence would be withheld to stop sensitive information being disclosed.
Mr Blunkett is obliged to review by 2006 all counter-terrorism legislation including measures aimed at domestic terrorists and the emergency laws introduced after 11 September. His proposals will be set out within the next month and could become law within the next 18 months.
He admitted that there was a difficult balance to strike between human rights and catching suicide bombers before they had committed a crime. "We are having to say that the nature of what people obtain through the security and intelligence route is different to the evidence gained through the policing route," the Home Secretary said.
"It needs to be presented in a way that doesn't allow disclosure by any of the parties involved, which would destroy your security services. It is about the threshold of evidence and the nature of those involved being accredited and trusted not to reveal sources."
Mark Littlewood, campaigns director of the human rights group Liberty, said: "Britain already has the most draconian anti-terror laws in Western Europe. To add to these by further undermining trial by jury and radically reducing the burden of proof is wholly unacceptable. Simply introducing more laws, greater powers and stiffer penalties will go a long way to undermining British justice and will not make our country any safer."
A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said: "Lowering the burden of proof required to obtain convictions appears to be allowing the terrorists to succeed because it would undermine our own values in the UK. It does not inspire confidence that a lot of this will be based on evidence from intelligence sources in light of the intelligence blunders over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
Louise Christian, who represents Feroz Abbasi, one of the Britons held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, said Mr Blunkett's attitude was "enormously disappointing" for those fighting detention by the US authorities. She said: "He is going around the world making these very extreme announcements and I don't think he's fit to be Home Secretary."
Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, a Labour peer and lawyer, told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It is as if David Blunkett takes his lessons on jurisprudence from Robert Mugabe. He really is a shameless authoritarian."Reuse content