NEWS

U.K.: Counterterrorism Bill Criticized by Human Rights Group

By Matthew Harwood

Calling it "unnecessary, disproportionate, and counterproductive," Human Rights Watch (HRW) has rebuked new U.K. counterterrorism legislation the House of Lords will begin debating Tuesday, three years and a day after the 7-7 attack that killed 52 in London.

"[C]ounterterrorism measures that violate international human rights and undermine fundamental values are wrong in principle and counterproductive in practice," the 19-page briefing argued. "Simply put, they will not make Britain safer."

HRW takes particular issue with four elements of the legislation: an extension of the period authorities may detain terror suspects without charges from 28 days to 42 days; a requirement that convicted terrorists notify authorities of their residence and travel activities; allowances for questioning terror defendants after they've been charged; and the wording of the legislation's definition of terrorism.

Supporters argue that two-weeks' added precharge detention would provide authorities much-needed time given the complex nature of international terrorism. HRW, however, already argues that the current four-week limit is "excessive and in violation of the UK's obligations under international human rights law."

HRW also noted that the government acknowledges that there is no current evidence to justify an extension, and that Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights has called the extension "fundamentally flawed" while violating the European Convention on Human Rights.

The rights group said of the 1,228 people detained for terrorism-related offenses between 9-11 and March 31, 2007, more than half were released without charge. "It is therefore reasonable to expect that the new powers would lead terrorism suspects ... being detained for the equivalent of a three-month prison sentence and then released without charge," HRW argued.

The rights group worries extending precharge detention will harm the government's relationship with the large U.K. Muslim community, embolden jihadists, and antagonize those whom already understand the need for cooperating with police to subvert terrorism.

The rights group fears abuse of post-charge questioning absent adequate safeguards.

Such safeguards include limits on how long a person can be questioned after being charged with a terrorist offense, that the questioning be subject to audio and visual recording, and that the accused's lawyers always be present during questioning, HRW says, arguing that the court's ability to draw "adverse inferences" from a defendant's silence during questioning "fundamentally undermines the right to silence and the prohibition on self-incrimination."

Also under the legislation, convicted terrorists would be required upon release from prison to register their name and address with police and, in certain cases, inform police of foreign travel plans. Terrorists convicted to one- to five-year prison terms would have notification obligations for ten years; those convicted to more than five-year prison terms would have lifetime notification obligations.

HRW said such blanket notification requirements violates the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights because the legislation deprives "fundamental rights without regard to personal circumstances or based solely on the category of the crime for which the offender is found guilty." The rights body also argued that notification obligations are "a disproportionate response to a genuine public safety concern."

The rights body's final complaint concerned how the legislation defines terrorism as occurring when a group or an individual tries "to influence the government" using proscribed actions such as violence or attacks against the electronic system. HRW suggests the words "to coerce, to unduly compel, and to subvert" replace "to influence" to avoid any confusion and narrow down what constitutes terrorism.

The human rights body said its analysis of the legislation is to help ensure human rights are not sacrificed in the fight against terrorism. But it also maintained such counterterrorism proposals are strategically misguided as well.

"[C]ounterterrorism measures that violate human rights undermine a government's moral legitimacy and damage its ability to win the battle for 'hearts and minds' that Prime Minister Gordon Brown has acknowledged to be central to long-term success in countering terrorism."

 

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