A British judge has given police additional time to hold without charge 23 terror suspects being held in the plot to bomb flights to the United States. The police request was granted under anti-terrorism laws passed last year after the London subway bombings that killed 52 people. British anti-terror laws are tough and the government may seek to make them even tougher.
Britain is no stranger to terrorism. For years, Britain was locked in a protracted struggle with the Irish Republican Army. The British government responded with a series of tough, but controversial, anti-terror laws. These were strengthened even before the New York terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
But after last year's London subway bombings, Prime Minister Tony Blair won a partial victory from a skeptical Parliament in his bid to strengthen the anti-terror laws.
As it now stands, suspects can be held for 28 days for interrogation without being charged. The suspects in the current alleged plot had been in custody for seven days when police asked for more time to hold them.
Royal Institute for International Affairs intelligence and security expert Bob Ayers says police have to repeatedly convince a judge that there is merit and progress in their investigation.
"However, it is not that they just pick them up off the street and hold them for 28 days," he said. "They have to go back and continuously ask for permission to extend the time period from the moment of arrest up to the 28-day period of time. If the courts will not allow them to hold them for 28 days, then they either have to charge them or they have to release them. Under U.K. law, once a person is charged, the police cannot interrogate him any more."
Chairman Paul Wilkinson, of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Violence at the University of St. Andrews, says the judicial review is an important component of the law.
"It is a safeguard that people are not held for long periods of time when the police do not have serious evidence against the individual. And I think that safeguard is important," he said. "Parliament was much happier to proceed with this extension of time that people could be held on the basis that the judiciary would have to be involved in approving each extension."
He says that without the judicial review the measure would not have gotten through Parliament at all. As it was, Prime Minister Blair had originally asked for a 90-day detention period to give police and the security services more time to interrogate suspects. But that failed when members of his own Labor Party voted against the plan. The 28 days was agreed upon as a compromise.
Analysts say that with the revelation of this plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners, Blair may now try to get the rest of what he asked for and again ask that the period be changed to 90 days.
But the measures have come under sharp criticism from civil libertarians. And many in the country's Muslim community believe the anti-terror measures, such as the right to stop and search solely on suspicion of some terror-related activity, unfairly target them.
U.S. officials believe the British have more flexibility in dealing with terrorists. Britain also has a domestic intelligence agency, MI5, that has broad investigatory powers but no power to arrest anyone. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the detention without charge provision of British law gives authorities what he termed "a tremendous advantage," and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ordered a comparative review of U.S. and British anti-terror laws.
As security expert Bob Ayers points out, the one area where the British believe the Americans have the advantage is in use of wiretaps.
"Unlike the United States, British courts do not allow the admission of wiretap evidence into trials. This is primarily the result of the security services wanting to protect their sources and methods for collecting information electronically," he said.
But Paul Wilkinson of the University of St. Andrews says the British government should re-examine that prohibition.
"With all the usual safeguards that we have over insuring the intercept tapes haven't been interfered with, the defense lawyers have a chance to listen to the evidence, I do not think there should be any objection to using intercepts in terrorism cases. In fact, it might be particularly valuable in certain cases because of the difficulty in getting witnesses to come forward," he said.
British anti-terror law also allows prosecution for words as well as deeds. A radical Islamic preacher, Abu Hamza, was convicted in February under the law for incitement to murder and race hatred for sermons he delivered at a London mosque. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, but is appealing his conviction. The United States is seeking his extradition on terrorism charges.