Downing Street forces Blunkett to back down over secret terror trials

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Indy Politics

David Blunkett backed off yesterday from controversial proposals for a draconian strengthening of anti-terrorism laws in the face of opposition from Cabinet colleagues.

The Home Secretary prompted outrage last month when he suggested lowering of the burden of proof to secure the conviction of terrorists and holding trials in secret to prevent the security services being compromised. He also floated the idea of British citizens suspected of plotting a terrorist attack being arrested before the attack had happened.

But Downing Street is understood to have shared the concerns over the move expressed by civil liberties groups and lawyers.

Yesterday Mr Blunkett set out a range of options for preventing a terrorist attack that omitted the most contentious of his earlier suggestions. He admitted he had been "surprised by the ferocity" of the reaction he had provoked.

The only main proposal to survive is the idea that tapped telephone conversations and intercepted e-mails can be used in the prosecution of terrorist suspects. But that may run into hostility from MI5 and MI6 who fear it could reveal too much about their methods.

A Home Office discussion paper on the subject said: "There are already a wide range of criminal and terrorist-related offences that can be used to bring prosecutions. The Government is considering whether further offences should be introduced."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The big ideas of three weeks ago seem to have disappeared. We can only assume colleagues concerned at the negative reaction to the proposals from senior legal figures have silenced Blunkett at the 11th hour."

Mr Blunkett strongly defended as "absolutely crucial" powers allowing the indefinite detention of foreign nationals suspected of terrorism, seven of whom are in Belmarsh prison in south-east London, which has been condemned as "Britain's Guantanamo Bay". The powers were criticised last month by a committee of parliamentarians, chaired by Lord Newton of Braintree.

But he scotched speculation that such provisions could be extended to British nationals believed to be al-Qa'ida activists.

In his discussion paper he said: "The Government believes that such draconian powers would be difficult to justify.

"Experience has demonstrated the dangers of such an approach and the damage it can do to community cohesion and thus to the support from all parts of the public that is so essential to countering the terrorist threat."

One new idea aired was bringing Britain into line with France, where an offence of "associating" with terrorists has been introduced.

Mr Blunkett said: "There are no norms here in terms of suicide terrorism generated by al-Qa'ida and the networks working alongside them in the way there have been in the past with terrorist groups that had a negotiated position and where they, by the very nature of what they were doing, sought to save their own lives even if they were endeavouring to take the lives of others."

He confirmed that moves were underway to expand the staffing of MI5 by 50 per cent. And he disclosed there could be a new effort to bring in an offence of "incitement to religious hatred" after it was dropped in 2001.