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Terror laws unjust, says EU human rights chief

By Robert Verkaik

12 November 2004

Britain has been accused of weakening the rule of law by wrongly detaining foreign terror suspects under emergency powers rushed through parliament in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

Europe's human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles, told the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that he could find no justification for the internment without trial of 10 men in Belmarsh and other prisons for nearly three years.

Mr Gil-Robles' growing concerns about the use of powers enacted in response to the threat of terrorism had prompted him to ask the government for a list of the men and women who had been arrested, detained, charged and sentenced since September 11, 2001.

The Council of Europe Commissioner was speaking after meetings the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, the Director for Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC, and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, during his investigation into human rights in this country.

"I would really like to see how many have been detained and charged and how many will be sentenced," he said.

"These statistics will provide a few surprises. I believe we will find that fewer people are sentenced than are detained or charged."

He asked how those people cleared of links to terrorism would be able to rebuild their lives. Mr Gil-Robles said he was also concerned about the disproportionate number of Asians and Muslims affected by the emergency legislation, and about police powers of stop and search. "I believe Asian and Muslim communities are particularly targeted. It's clear that Asian communities suffer more from this legislation that other communities."

Today, the Commissioner will visit detainees in Belmarsh held under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

The government's decision to suspend Article Five of the European Convention on Human Rights is being challenged in the House of Lords.

Ministers have justified the move on the grounds that the threat posed by groups such as al-Qa'ida present a public emergency and a threat to the life of the nation. But Mr Gil-Robles said it was not justified. He said yesterday: "I do not believe that the circumstances we now face justify detention under these terms."

He said that, across Europe, a number of governments were "taking steps to overstep the limits on the pretext of the fight against terror". But he argued: "The democratic system is strong; its strength is conditional on a society being bound by a faith in fundamental rules. Terrorism cannot be combated in the long-term by weakening the rule of law. We see legislation increasingly introduced to reduce essential guarantees on pretext of security."

Lord Falconer said he thought that the government's approach to terrorism was "consistent with the rule of law" and that suspending Article Five was necessary and justified. Mr Gil-Robles will now compile his report, which includes his enquiry into Britain's response to asylum and antisocial behaviour. He said he expected the Government to respond to any recommendations he made.