The UK government’s proposals to extend from 28 days to almost two months the time suspects can be detained without charge will violate the right to liberty, Human Rights Watch said today. It is also likely to be deeply counterproductive in the fight against terrorism.
“Locking up suspects without charge for months at a time denies the basic right to liberty,” said Ben Ward, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The British government’s plan to extend pre-charge detention is a recipe for alienating communities vital to defeating terrorism.”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons on July 25, 2007 that the government is considering several options to extend pre-charge detention beyond the current 28-day period – already the longest in the European Union.
Although the government has said that the powers will be used sparingly, there is a real danger that British Muslims will be detained for extended periods on suspicion of terrorism, but then released without charge due to a lack of evidence. The government’s figures for arrests since 2001 under the Terrorism Act 2000 indicate that more than half of those arrested on terrorism offenses under the law are eventually released without charge.
The proposals evoke the experience of internment in Northern Ireland, which is widely accepted to have alienated communities and undermined the legitimacy of the British authorities in the province.
“If the Prime Minister is serious about winning hearts and minds, he needs to shelve this plan,” said Ward. “Internment was deeply counterproductive in the fight against terrorism in Northern Ireland, and these proposals carry similar risks.”
The proposals include reliance on civil emergencies legislation to allow for an additional 30 days’ detention (a total of 58 days), or a judicially-supervised extension allowing for up to 56 days pre-charge detention, with notification to the Director of Public Prosecutions and Parliament.
Pre-charge detention is already subject to judicial supervision, and parliamentary scrutiny in individual cases adds little more, Human Rights Watch said. The most effective way to protect against arbitrary detention is to stick to strict, and short, detention time limits.
The government has said the extension is needed to gather and process the complex evidence in terrorism investigations. But it has yet to demonstrate that the current detention time-limit is a serious impediment to those investigations.
Moreover, the government has not explained why the complexity of investigations cannot be adequately addressed through other means, in particular by allowing the police to question suspects after they have been charged, subject to adequate safeguards against self-incrimination, Human Rights Watch said. That change, which has been proposed by the government, is widely supported in Parliament.