New offences plan to combat terror threat

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The Government is considering the introduction of new terrorist and criminal offences to combat the threat from al-Qa'ida and other extremists, it was confirmed today.

Home Secretary David Blunkett said his controversial internment powers will remain an "essential component" of the Government's anti-terrorism measures. But extending similar powers to British citizens would be a grave step that would be "difficult to justify".

Ministers were "willing to consider any realistic alternative proposals and approaches which take account of the Government's human rights obligations", a discussion paper said.

It went on: "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."

The document also revealed that plans to introduce an offence of "incitement to religious hatred" were back on the cards after faltering in 2001.

The offence could help counter fears that new laws could be interpreted as anti-Muslim, and the Government added that it "remains attracted in principle" to introducing such an offence.

A similar move had to be dropped in December 2001 to get emergency anti-terror measures through Parliament.

The paper revealed that officials were preparing to publish on the Home Office website "anonymised information" about each of the 14 foreign nationals currently detained without trial or charge.

Discussing the proposals of a committee of senior parliamentarians, chaired by Lord Newton of Braintree, which were published last year, the paper said: "While it would be possible to seek other powers to detain British citizens who may be involved in international terrorism it would be a very grave step.

"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."

Earlier this month Mr Blunkett suggested that it may be necessary to lower the standard of proof in terror cases to make it easier to secure pre-emptive convictions against would-be suicide bombers.

A new, secret court regime would be necessary to protect intelligence sources, including vetted judges and defence solicitors, he added.

These ideas were not discussed explicitly in today's document but Mr Blunkett has made clear that he wants the widest ranging debate on the issue.

A further opting out from the European Convention on Human Rights - first enacted in 2001 to allow foreign nationals to be detained without trial or charge - would be "unavoidable in the circumstances which we face", the paper said.

On whether intercepted telecommunications evidence should be admissible in court, the paper said: "Such relaxation could also be relevant in the context of other offences such as those involving organised crime.

"A review of the current prohibition on the use of such material is under way and will be reporting in the next few months.

"It is important to ensure that any decision on whether or not to change the law is based on a rigorous assessment of the likely impact (e.g. in securing more prosecutions) and clear evidence that the benefits of doing so clearly outweigh the risks."

On the possibility of introducing plea bargaining in courts for terrorist and other offences, the paper said work was under way to consider how the existing system could be made "more transparent".

It also repeated the Government's rejection of the Newton Committee's suggestion that terror suspects could be electronically tagged.

On the Newton Committee's suggestion that more work should be done with foreign governments to secure the deportation of foreign nationals, the paper said: "In order to explore with a foreign government the possibilities of a deportation under the terms of a signed Memorandum of Understanding, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) would need to give permission for their identity to be disclosed, for strictly limited purposes."

The Home Secretary called for people to submit their comments by the end of August.

Mr Blunkett drew a parallel between today's terror threat and US President Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the American Civil War, or the period of internment in wartime Britain, although he admitted that those periods were "more extreme times".

Regarding the forthcoming anti-terror law reforms, the Home Secretary said: "We are not advocating any particular course."

Mr Blunkett has admitted that he was risking the derision of his opponents by calling for all sides to come up with solutions to the international terror threat.

In an exclusive article for PA News, he said he was "fed up" with the "brickbats" aimed at him by human rights campaigners.

"Let's hear some new ideas, not just poisonous personal attacks," he said.

He confessed that he risked "being derided as ineffectual" for publishing a paper that raised more questions than it answered.

Powers in the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act which allow foreign nationals to be interned will lapse in 2006. They must be renewed in a new Act if the 14 men currently detained in high-security jails under the rules are to remain in custody.

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