Terror laws used unfairly on Muslims, warn MPs

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Anti-terrorism laws are being used "disproportionately" against Muslims and should be overhauled as soon as possible, senior parliamentarians said yesterday.

Anti-terrorism laws are being used "disproportionately" against Muslims and should be overhauled as soon as possible, senior parliamentarians said yesterday.

MPs and peers warned the legislation could have a "corrosive" long-term effect on human rights in Britain and cast serious doubts on the extent of the terrorist threat to the country.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed deep concern over the Terrorism Act of 2000, under which 13 al-Qa'ida suspects were arrested yesterday, and emergency legislation rushed in after the 11 September attacks nearly three years ago.

There was "discrimination inherent" in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001, which became law within weeks of the atrocities, the committee said. Because it allows the indefinite detention of foreign nationals without trial, the Government was forced to derogate - or opt out - of its international human rights obligations.

The committee said the measure "unjustifiably discriminated on grounds of nationality" and demanded an alternative was found. It added: "We also note there is mounting evidence the powers under the Terrorism Act [of 2000] are being used disproportionately against members of the Muslim community."

The committee pointed to recent Metropolitan Police figures revealing a steep increase in the numbers of Asians being detained under stop-and-search powers.

A day after the Government faced calls to be more open about the terrorist threat to Britain, the committee raised concerns over the culture of secrecy within Whitehall and the security services.

It complained it had never been shown intelligence information that would "enable us to be satisfied of the existence of a public emergency threatening the life of the nation".

Of the 2001 anti-terrorism Act, it warned: "Long-term derogations from human rights obligations have a corrosive effect on the culture of respect for human rights.''

The MPs and peers suggested greater use of surveillance techniques in trials. And they raised the alarm over the possibility of detentions in Britain on the basis of confessions extracted by alleged torture of detainees abroad, such as those in Guantanamo Bay.

They said they were "not persuaded" of the need to create a new offence - currently being considered by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary - to make it illegal to be involved in "acts preparatory to terrorism". They argued it would not necessarily overcome obstacles to terrorism prosecutions.

The Labour peer Lord Judd, a committee member, said that yesterday's arrests underlined fears that anti-terrorism legislation discriminated against Muslims.

"That is a worrying situation in terms of the confidence of Islamic citizens in Britain that they are not all under suspicion," he told the BBC.

Massoud Shadjareh, chair of Islamic Human Rights Commission, said: "Every time there's a report on terrorism that's going to be critical of the 2001 Act you get these arrests."

A Home Office spokesman denied arrests were unfairly targeting Muslims. He said: "They aren't aimed at a particular race, religion or group."

A spokesman for civil rights group Liberty said: "This report has taken a long, hard look at sensible ways in which one can combat the terrorist threat and decided that the current government approach is almost certainly counter-productive."