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Blair: British Judges Out of Touch With People

British Prime Minister Tony Blair says his country's criminal justice system is in disrepair, after judges gave freedom to a group of Afghan hijackers, and a convicted rapist that killed a woman.

In a speech in London, Mr. Blair said the criminal justice system is the one public service that is "most distant from what reasonable people want."

The prime minister said the protection of individual civil rights must be weighed against the threat society faces from international crime and terrorism. "The demands of the majority, law-abiding community have to take precedence, and what does that mean?" he said. "It means we should not have to fight continual legal battles to deport people who are committing serious crimes or inciting extremism. We cannot allow violent or drug-abusing offenders to be put back out on the street again without proper supervision and if necessary, restraint."

These were Mr. Blair's first comments on the issue since a High Court judge last week criticized the government for not granting permanent residency to a group of nine Afghans who had hijacked a plane to Britain in 2000. The government had wanted to deport the men.

Also, it was learned last week that a convicted rapist on parole had killed a 40-year-old woman. Prison authorities had complained the man was treated too leniently in order to protect his rights.

Earlier this month, Mr. Blair removed his chief law-and-order minister, Charles Clarke, amid revelations that more than 1,000 convicted foreigners were released from prison without considering their deportation.

Adding to the controversies, there is concern among some legal experts that Mr. Blair is exploiting the incidents for political advantage.

"It seems to me that [Prime Minister Blair] is running a populist thing, picking fights with liberals and whipping up public opinion in a way that I think is going to be detrimental to our basic rights and freedoms in this country," said Anthony Lester, a member of the opposition Liberal Democrat party in the House of Lords and a leading human-rights lawyer.

Mr. Blair may find the path of judicial reform complicated by his earlier legislation that allows British court rulings to be reviewed, and even overturned, by the European Court of Human Rights.

The prime minister has asked the home office to consider if new laws are needed to bring British court rulings into line with the often tougher interpretation in other European countries of the continent's human rights convention.