Astrid Zweynert – Reuters February 2, 2004
LONDON - Home Secretary David Blunkett has come under fire for radical proposals to tighten anti-terror laws, with one eminent lawyer calling him a "shameless authoritarian".
Blunkett wants terror suspects to go on trial in secret if necessary to protect intelligence sources, to lower the burden of proof and bring in pre-emptive charges so that they could be put on trial before they mount an attack.
"It`s as if David Blunkett takes his lessons in jurisprudence from Robert Mugabe," said Baroness Helena Kennedy, one of the country`s most senior lawyers.
"He really is a shameless authoritarian and I think we can be confident that many of his colleagues in the cabinet, including particularly the attorney general, will sit on this because it really is an affront to the rule of law," Kennedy told BBC radio.
The proposals came as pressure mounted on Prime Minister Tony Blair to launch an independent probe into apparent intelligence failings over Iraq after Washington bowed to calls for an inquiry into the justification given for war.
"It does not inspire confidence that a lot of this will be based on evidence from intelligence sources, in light of the intelligence blunders over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," said a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain.
The proposals by far surpass any emergency powers taken at the height of the IRA`s bombing campaign in the 1970s.
If Blunkett`s plans, announced during a trip to India, are given the go ahead by parliament, suspects would be tried behind closed doors by security-vetted judges appointed by the government, sitting without a jury and banned from disclosing sensitive evidence.
Defendants could be found guilty on weaker evidence than at present. Currently jurors are told they must be sure "beyond reasonable doubt" that a defendant is guilty. Under the new proposals, judges could convict on "the balance of probabilities".
"It would be unprecedented," lawyer Louise Christian, who represents the family of Feroz Abbasi, a Briton detained at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, told Reuters.
"It`s an attack on the fundamentals of the criminal justice system," Christian said.
A Home Office spokesman said Blunkett wanted tighter laws because suicide bombers were not deterred from committing attacks by the threat of being jailed.
"We need to address that question through the criminal law in preventing terrorism rather than merely reacting after the event," the spokesman said.
Civil rights campaigners denounced the plans as unacceptable and said they would not make Britain any safer.
"Britain already has the most draconian anti-terror laws in Western Europe," Mark Littlewood, campaigns director of civil rights group Liberty, told Reuters.
"To add to these by further undermining trial by jury and radically reducing the burden of proof is wholly unacceptable."
Britain currently holds 16 foreign detainees without charges under anti-terror laws rushed in after the 2001 attacks on the United States to allow the indefinite detention of suspected international terrorists.
Last updated 05/02/2004