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Britain’s highest court will begin deliberations on October 4 in a landmark challenge to the government’s indefinite detention of foreign terrorism suspects, Human Rights Watch said today.

The House of Lords Judicial Committee will convene on October 4 to consider the lawfulness of the indefinite detention powers, which are contained in the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001. The case is an appeal from an October 2002 decision by the Court of Appeal which ruled that indefinite detention is compatible with UK and international law. Human Rights Watch today released a Q&A detailing the background and significance of the case.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of the decision before the House of Lords,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “If the law lords decide that indefinite detention is acceptable, Britain will have abandoned a cornerstone of its liberty—that everyone is equal under the law.”

Eleven terrorism suspects are currently in indefinite detention in the United Kingdom. Seven have been detained without trial for more than two years. None has been charged with a crime. The use of the measure has led to growing alarm: two committees of UK parliamentarians have called for indefinite detention to be “replaced as a matter of urgency,” arguing it is unjust and undermines respect for human rights. The policy has also been criticized by the United Nations and European human rights bodies.

Human Rights Watch said that indefinite detention without trial or charge is never permissible under human rights law, including the United Kingdom’s domestic Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. In order to introduce the measure, the government had to declare a “public emergency” and suspend parts of the Human Rights Act, European Convention, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The law lords are also being asked to consider whether evidence from third countries obtained under torture may be used in indefinite detention cases. The issue arises from a separate Court of Appeal majority ruling in August 2004 approving the use of evidence obtained under torture, as long as the United Kingdom neither “procured nor connived at” the torture. The House of Lords will decide on October 4 whether to consider the torture issue at the same time as indefinite detention, or at a later date. The use of torture evidence is prohibited under international law.

“It is absolutely vital that the Lords repudiate the use of torture evidence as soon as possible,” Cartner said. “Allowing evidence obtained under torture undermines the global ban on torture, and sends a terrible signal to other countries that such practices are acceptable.”

Human Rights Watch published the briefing paper, Neither Just nor Effective, on the indefinite detention regime in June 2004. It can be found at https://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/uk/index.htm.

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