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Britain Unveils New Anti-Terrorism Law

The British government has introduced new anti-terrorism legislation that would give the cabinet's law-and-order minister sweeping power to put suspects under house arrest and monitoring. Opponents say civil liberties could be trampled in the process.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, unveiled the proposal in Parliament, saying he needs extraordinary anti-terrorist powers because of the ongoing threat Britain faces.

"Let no one be in any doubt that there are terrorists here and abroad who want to attack the UK and its interests,” he said. “Some believe that the absence in this country of a terrorist outrage like 9/11 or Madrid means that the terrorist threat has somehow passed us by, or has somehow failed to materialize. That view, is in my view shortsighted, complacent, ignorant of the facts and potentially cavalier in its disregard of the safety of this country."

Under the proposed law, the home secretary could order the indefinite house arrest of anyone on British soil, no matter their citizenship. He could also bar them from using telephones and the Internet, or having contact with other specified individuals.

Mr. Clarke says the home secretary, who is a member of the cabinet, needs to have those powers for national security reasons, but he says there would be a seven-day period in each case during which a senior judge could overrule the decision.

During debate in Parliament, the home affairs spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, David Davis, said the proposed law could trample civil liberties.

"Under these proposals, for the first time in modern British history, a politician will be able, by order, to restrain the liberties of a British subject,” he noted. “He will do that on the basis either of a balance of probabilities or even simple suspicion. He will do it for reasons, and on evidence, that may not even be known to the British subject who loses their liberty."

The government is moving to revise its 2001 anti-terrorism law, which was declared illegal in December by the law lords, Britain's highest court.

In their ruling, the judges said the 2001 act is discriminatory because it has been used to detain foreigners, but does not apply to Britons.

The government says it needs the new legislation in place by March 14, when the current law expires. There are 10 foreign terrorist suspects being held under the 2001 law at the Belmarsh high security prison in London. They are from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. Britain will not deport them out of fear they could face torture or execution in their home countries.

The Muslim Association of Britain has come out in opposition to the new law. It says suspects should be brought before a court, and indefinite house arrest without charges would amount to a violation of democratic values and human rights.