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British Court Strikes Down Key Part of Anti-Terror Law


Britain's highest court has ruled that suspected foreign terrorists cannot be held indefinitely without trial. The ruling is a major blow to the anti-terrorist strategy of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Commentators say the law lords have dealt Mr. Blair's government what one calls "a crushing defeat," by ruling that foreign terrorist suspects have the same right to legal protection as Britons.

The case involved nine Muslim men, some of whom have been detained without charge for three years under anti-terrorist laws Britain adopted following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Law Lord Thomas Bingham, head of the nine-judge panel, said the suspects' human rights were being violated by the government's anti-terrorist laws.

"The measures unjustifiably discriminate against foreign nationals on the ground of their nationality, or immigration status," he said.

One of Britain's leading human rights campaigners, Shami Chakrabarty, from an organization called, Liberty, is hailing the decision.

"This is the most important constitutional case in British history, quite possibly, and the law lords have spoken clear as a bell. The rights of three centuries to a fair trial should not be suspended," he said.

The government had argued that it needs the sweeping power to hold foreigners suspected of involvement in terrorism, because of the extraordinary threats Britain faces in the wake of the 2001 attacks.

One of the detainees affected by Thursday's ruling is Abu Qatada, a Syrian cleric identified by British authorities as the spiritual inspiration for Mohammed Atta, the lead attacker on September 11.

The judges' ruling does not bring immediate freedom to the nine jailed men, but the government will have to take the anti-terrorism law back to parliament for revision.

Some lawyers compare Britain's indefinite detentions to those of suspected terrorists held as illegal combatants by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since the overthrow of the Taleban in Afghanistan in 2001.

About 550 prisoners remain jailed at Guantanamo, and the U.S. military has begun parole hearings, on a case-by-case basis, to determine if detainees will pose a security threat if they are granted freedom.

International law experts and human rights activists have heavily criticized the United States over the detention and treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners. A leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross says the psychological and physical treatment of Guantanamo prisoners, has been, in the document's words, "tantamount to torture".

Pentagon spokesmen will not comment on the Red Cross findings because the report was confidential. But spokesmen say the detainees are considered unlawful combatants and therefore not subject to the Geneva conventions.

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