The law lords have made an admirable defence of our fundamental freedoms

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The judgment handed down by nine law lords yesterday leaves no room for doubt. The highest court in the land has ruled that the measures the Government rushed through Parliament after the 11 September attacks are disproportionate to the threat they are meant to counter and discriminate unacceptably against foreign nationals. The ruling rips the heart out of David Blunkett's programme of anti-terror legislation and gives his replacement as Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, no choice but to re-evaluate the policy of interning foreign terrorist suspects without trial. Mr Clarke will have to find a way of dealing with those perceived to represent a threat to national security that does not ride roughshod over our fundamental liberties. Our independent judiciary has - at last - brought down the shutters on a law that should never have been enacted in the first place.

The judgment handed down by nine law lords yesterday leaves no room for doubt. The highest court in the land has ruled that the measures the Government rushed through Parliament after the 11 September attacks are disproportionate to the threat they are meant to counter and discriminate unacceptably against foreign nationals. The ruling rips the heart out of David Blunkett's programme of anti-terror legislation and gives his replacement as Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, no choice but to re-evaluate the policy of interning foreign terrorist suspects without trial. Mr Clarke will have to find a way of dealing with those perceived to represent a threat to national security that does not ride roughshod over our fundamental liberties. Our independent judiciary has - at last - brought down the shutters on a law that should never have been enacted in the first place.

The piece of legislation in question, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, allows the Home Secretary to detain without trial foreign nationals who are suspected of terrorism, but who cannot be deported because it would endanger their lives. To pass it,Mr Blunkett had to opt out of Britain's responsibilities under the European Convention on Human Rights that guarantees the right to a fair trial and ignore the ancient principle of habeas corpus.

The consequences of this misconceived law have been mostly obscured from public view. Photographs have brought the plight of the inmates of America's illegal prison camp in Guantanamo Bay to the world's attention. But there have been no photographs of the nine detainees in Belmarsh jail. Britain's Guantanamo has been well shielded from public scrutiny. What little we know is not comforting. Lawyers for the detainees claim many have been driven insane by their indefinite imprisonment and the refusal of their captors - the British state - to inform them of charges against them.

The wheels of the British justice system may turn slowly but, thankfully, they do turn. Despite a setback for the detainees in a Court of Appeal ruling, the House of Lords has now come down unequivocally against the Government. The law lords argue that the legislation introduces a double standard of justice because it applies only to foreign nationals. (The Government could never justify locking up British citizens without trial.) It also denies the fundamental human rights of the detainees in a manner unwarranted by the scale of the threat posed to the country. But Lord Hoffmann, a law lord on the panel, summed up the case perfectly when he pointed out what a perversion of Britain's tradition of freedom this law represents. In his words: "The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these." We heartily concur.

Because this legislation needs to be renewed each year, the new Home Secretary has an early chance to act on the law lords' ruling. But how bold will Mr Clarke be in stepping back from his predecessor's policy? In June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the inmates of Guantanamo have a right to challenge their detention through the US judicial system. It rejected the Bush administration's claim that Guantanamo is not under US jurisdiction. But the US government's response has been dilatory, to say the least. The only consequences have been a handful of unsatisfactory military tribunals. The Home Secretary would be ill-advised if he did not act promptly on the law lords' ruling. He must either release the nine, or charge them in a fair, and open, trial.

Yesterday Mr Clarke argued that "it is ultimately for Parliament to decide whether and how we should amend the law". That is undoubtedly the case. But it is equally true that it is not given to governments to subvert Britain's most fundamental freedoms in the name of making us safer. The new Home Secretary should accept the law lords' ruling with good grace and allow this contemptible piece of legislation to lapse.

Comments