Draft Antiterrorism Law Raises Serious Human Rights Concerns
September 16, 2005
The evidence shows that assurances against torture don’t work...It defies belief that a country that doesn’t respect its international obligations not to torture would comply with a mere promise made to one country.
Holly Cartner Executive Director Europe and Central Asia Division

The British government’s proposal to extend the period that terrorism suspects can be detained without charge will undermine the rule of law and human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The proposal is one of several problematic measures contained in draft counterterrorism legislation published yesterday by the Home Office.

The proposal is one of several problematic measures contained in draft counterterrorism legislation published yesterday by the Home Office.

“The Law Lords last year rightly ruled that detention without trial is illegal and unacceptable,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the British government wants to lock up people who haven’t been charged with any crime for months at a time. Injustice is no answer to terrorism.”

The United Kingdom already allows terrorism suspects to be held without charge for up to 14 days. Suspects in regular criminal cases, including those charged with murder, can be held for a maximum of four days without charge. Detention for three months is equivalent to the average time served during a six-month sentence of imprisonment. The imposition of such prolonged detention without sufficient evidence even to merit a criminal charge may amount to punishment without trial. It seriously undermines the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence, and the right of an arrested person to be informed promptly of any charge against him.

Many of the measures in the draft terrorism bill were part of the 12-point plan announced by Prime Minister Tony Blair on August 5. Among the most problematic are new criminal offenses outlawing “indirect incitement” and the “glorification” of terrorism, which would undermine the right to peaceful expression. These new offenses follow an announcement by the Home Office on August 24 that broadens the national-security grounds for the deportation of foreign nationals to include speech deemed to incite or glorify terrorism.

“Directly inciting violence is already a crime in Britain,” said Cartner. “These overly broad new offenses will have a chilling effect on free speech in the classroom, the newsroom and the mosque.”

Separately, British police and immigration officials on Thursday detained seven Algerian nationals pending their deportation on national-security grounds. The detentions underscore the danger of British plans to rely on promises of humane treatment contained in “memorandums of understanding” as a basis for returning terrorism suspects to countries where they would be at risk of torture. Britain has already concluded such an agreement with Jordan, and is reportedly in negotiations with Algeria, Morocco and other Middle Eastern countries that have a record of torturing prisoners.

Tony Blair has conceded that the British courts may be unwilling to accept such agreements as a sufficient protection against the risk of torture. The British government’s plans to use these “diplomatic assurances” to deport detainees to countries where they are at risk of torture have been condemned by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak.

“The evidence shows that assurances against torture don’t work,” said Cartner, “It defies belief that a country that doesn’t respect its international obligations not to torture would comply with a mere promise made to one country.”

Human Rights Watch will publish a detailed analysis of the draft legislation after the British Parliament returns from its recess on October 10.