The British government’s plan to detain terrorism suspects for up to six weeks without charge violates the fundamental right to liberty and risks alienating British Muslims, Human Rights Watch said today. A new counterterrorism bill containing the proposals was presented to Parliament today.

“Setting aside basic rights is the wrong answer to terrorism, yet the government is still determined to hold suspects for six weeks without charge,” said Benjamin Ward, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament should reject the government’s latest attempt to push back the limits of pre-charge detention.”

The bill, which is the sixth major counterterrorism legislation since 2000, would give the home secretary temporary authority to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days in terrorism cases.

A broad spectrum of experts – including Director of Public Prosecution Sir Ken MacDonald, the current and former attorneys-general, and the Parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee – see no case for an extension of pre-charge detention beyond the current 28-day limit. Human Rights Watch considers that the current limit already violates human rights law. It is the longest by far in the European Union, and significantly longer than the permissible period in the United States and Canada.

Under the complex provisions of the bill, the home secretary could temporarily authorize 42 days of pre-charge detention in terrorism cases, following joint advice from the director of public prosecution and a chief police officer that an extension beyond 28 days would be necessary in a particular terrorism investigation. Once the home secretary has authorized extended pre-charge detention, any terrorism suspect in the UK can be detained without charge for 42 days.

The home secretary’s authority to permit extended pre-charge detention must be approved by Parliament within 30 days. By the time Parliament looks at the issue, some suspects may well have already been held for 42 days. The authority lapses after a total of 60 days.

However, there is nothing to prevent the home secretary, on the advice of the director of public prosecution and the police, from immediately authorizing a new extension in relation to a different investigation. This raises the potential for rolling periods of 42-day pre-charge detention of individuals in relation to terrorism cases.

The limited current judicial safeguards are largely unchanged, save that now only senior judges can review detention. But the judges still need not consider whether there is any basis for the belief that the detainee has committed a terrorist offense.

“The government’s claim that this power to detain is subject to strong safeguards doesn’t stand up,” Ward said. “Only the courts can effectively review detention, and judicial scrutiny in the bill remains wholly inadequate.”

The Muslim Council of Britain has told the government that any extension of pre-charge detention is likely to be counterproductive, and damaging to the battle of hearts and minds that Prime Minister Gordon Brown has identified as crucial to combating terrorism effectively.

“Six weeks of detention without charge isn’t the way to win hearts and minds,” Ward said. “The bill creates a significant risk of unjust extended detention, undermining community relations in Britain and the UK’s image abroad.”