Plans to hold terrorist suspects for three months without charge have come under heavy fire from civil liberties groups.
The proposals to extend pre-detention powers from two weeks to three months in certain circumstances are contained in a new Counter-Terrorism Bill published by the government this week. Home Secretary Charles Clarke is currently seeking cross-party consensus on the new laws, which include outlawing the ‘glorification’ of terrorism and prosecuting ‘extremist’ bookshops that sell terrorist propaganda material.
However, the extension of the detention powers has come in for the most criticism, with law reform group Justice labelling it “excessive”. “The Bill offers little to make the UK a safer place but much in terms of reducing its freedom,” said the organisation’s human rights policy director, Eric Metcalfe.
Human rights group Liberty said the extended powers were “effectively the re-introduction of internment”. Director Shami Chakrabarti said: “Think of young black and Asian men returning to their communities having served the equivalent of a six-month sentence without ever being charged. It is 30 times the maximum pre-charge detention period for every ordinary criminal offence including murder, rape and organised crime.”
However, the police have backed the government’s stance, saying that more time is needed in the current environment to bring offenders to justice.
Chairman of the Terrorism Committee at the Association of Chief Police Officers, Ken Jones, said: “The power is necessary because of the sheer volume of material we are discovering and the complex global reach of our enquiries. This power is not untrammelled. We will have to persuade weekly a district judge that further detention is necessary and that we are working at full speed. He or she will be able to accept or reject our request. The existing pre-charge regime was designed for another era and more conventional criminal justice purposes. We need to recognise that investigating and prosecuting a global ideologically motivated movement demands a different approach.”
Criminalising the ‘glorification’ of terrorism has also come under fire from Liberty – who said it is “so broad that the Home Secretary will take powers to determine which historical figures were terrorists and which were freedom fighters” – and opposition parties.
Shadow Home Secretary, David Davies, said: “I want to see people who encourage terrorism either expelled or locked up. But we have got to be very careful on the one hand not to unnecessarily limit free speech, or on the other hand to give clever lawyers a way out by making it too wide.”
Other offences set out in the Bill include ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’, ‘giving or receiving terror training’, and ‘the indirect incitement of terrorism’.