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UK: Rights for Terror Suspects

Follow UN Recommendations, and Reject Longer Pre-Charge Detention

(London, October 8, 2008) - The United Kingdom should heed calls in a critical UN report to drop proposals to detain terrorism suspects for 42 days without charge, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the home and foreign secretaries. The government should bring its counterterrorism policies into line with the recommendations from the UN Human Rights Committee.

The UN criticism reinforces the conclusion that the current 28-day pre-charge detention limit for terrorism suspects already violates international law. On October 9, the House of Lords will resume debate on a counterterrorism bill that would extend that period to 42 days.

"There's no longer any doubt - 28 days without charge violates rights," said Benjamin Ward, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The House of Lords should reject extension to 42 days and push the government to roll back the 28-day limit."

In a report issued in July 2008, following an in-depth review the same month, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that the UK's counterterrorism policies do not fully comply with its international human rights obligations. It said it was "disturbed" by the current 28-day period and "even more disturbed" by the 42-day period proposed under the counterterrorism bill.

The committee, composed of internationally recognized experts, assesses compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It emphasized that terrorism suspects should be promptly informed of charges against them (although it did not specify a period). Other key findings in the committee's report include:

  • The use of secret evidence to justify "control orders" against terrorism suspects restricting their movement and association violates human rights law. Suspects and their lawyers should have access to all evidence against them, the committee said.
  • The UK government had failed to justify delaying access to a lawyer for up 48 hours when suspects are arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000. Suspects should have access to a lawyer immediately, it said.
  • The offense under the Terrorism Act 2006 that criminalizes "encouragement of terrorism" is "broad and vague" and should be amended to bring it into line with the right to free expression.

"The UK told the UN that its counterterrorism approach respects rights," said Ward. "It is plain that a key UN rights body does not agree. If the government is serious about rights, it should promptly carry out the committee's recommendations."

Similar concerns about UK counterterrorism policy, including lengthy pre-charge detention, were expressed during the April 2008 examination of the UK's human rights record under the newly established universal periodic review procedures at the UN Human Rights Council. And on October 2, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed "serious doubts" that the extension of pre-charge detention is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

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