NEWS

UK: Brown Government Unveils New Terrorism Law

By Matthew Harwood

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has forged forward today and released a new terrorism bill that is deeply controversial due to its push to increase the precharge detention of terrorism suspects from 28 days to 42 days.

Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, said terrorism suspects will face 42 days of precharge detention only in "clear and exceptional" circumstances.

Smith says the extension is necessary because of the increasing complexity of terrorism cases that can be multiple in nature and span international borders with information locked away in a plethora of technological devices, such as computer hard drives.

The Guardian gives a good summary of how the police or government would have to go about seeking someone's detention for 42 days.

The order could only be made with the backing of a joint report by a chief constable and the director of public prosecutions. By signing the order, the home secretary would be making the higher limit of 42 days available to the authorities for a maximum period of 60 days. The decision would have to be approved by parliament within 30 days of it coming into force. But it could see suspects held for 42 days before MPs had the opportunity to approve their detention.

Defending the measure, Smith said the decision to sign the order should be for the home secretary. Government business managers would then set the date for a parliamentary vote to approve the order.

If either the Commons or the Lords were to vote it down, the power would expire at midnight on the day of the debate.

Parliament could be recalled from summer recess if a vote was required on an extension. Individual detentions lasting more than 28 days would need to be approved by a judge at least every seven days.

Prime Minister Brown's decision to seek the precharge detention extension should meet with revolt from within his own Labour Party, as well as opposition across government and among civil liberty and human rights advocates.

Bloomberg.com reports that " More than a dozen Labour members of Parliament have said they will join the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in opposing the extension, threatening Brown with the biggest rebellion since becoming prime minister in June. The plan will fail if 34 Labour lawmakers vote no."

A poll taken last month by the Independent says 38 Labour MPs answered that they would vote "no" on the bill.

Precharge detention has been a divisive issue since Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, tried to extend it to 90 days in 2005. Blair lost that fight, his only legislative defeat while prime minister.

In a statement, Shami Chakrabarti, director for the human rights group Liberty, said:

“The Government is right to abandon the divisive rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’, but it must now abandon the counter-productive policies that went with it. Despite Ministerial promises of exceptional circumstances and so-called safeguards, the reality of this bill is an on-off button for six weeks detention without charge.”

On top of extending precharge detention, the new terrorism bill would allow police to take DNA samples from suspected terrorists while pressuring judges to increase penalties for criminals whose offense is linked with terrorism. Publishing, communicating, or eliciting the personal information of military personnel would be criminalized as well. The bill would also allow post-charge questioning of suspects, which Liberty pushed for, but is unsatisfied with.

In a statement, Liberty said it "believes they do not give enough powers to police and prosecutors and omit vital safeguards. Under the Government’s plan, police may question suspects post-charge only about issues to do with the charge that has already been brought, rather than questions relating to possible new charges."

For additional coverage, BBC.com and the Canadian Press have more here and here.

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