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British Court Rules Freezing Terror Suspects' Assets 'Unlawful'

Britain's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that government orders freezing the assets of terror suspects are unlawful. The decision comes only a week after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that certain stop and search powers of Britain's police are also illegal.

The Supreme Court ruled that financial restrictions on five suspected terrorists were a breach of their human rights.

The order to freeze the assets of suspected terrorists was made by the treasury in 2006, in order to inhibit the financing of international terrorism.

But the orders were not voted on in Parliament and Wednesday the Supreme Court said Britain's government would have to obtain parliamentary approval for 'far reaching measures' to combat terrorism.

In response, a spokesperson for the treasury said it would introduce fast-track legislation to make sure their power to freeze assets won't be interrupted.

Eric Metcalfe is human rights policy director at the legal human rights group Justice. He says Wednesday's ruling represents a critical defense of the democratic principle in Britain.

"This is a democracy governed by the rule of law and it is profoundly important that democratic representatives deliberate in a proper manner about how laws are made and whether the right balance has been struck," he said.

The five men involved in the case have been allowed around $20 a week in cash and have had to receive special permission for all their expenses.

The men are accused of offenses including meeting al-Qaida leaders and giving support to terrorist organizations in Pakistan, but they have not been charged or convicted by any court.

Metcalfe says it is important that people who are suspected of terrorist offenses are tried in a criminal court.

"More generally I think there's been a wholesale shift away from using the criminal justice system, which is in legal terms our most effective weapon in the fight against terrorism," he said.

Nigel Inkster is director of transnational threats and political risk at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.

He says in some instances it is impossible to try terror suspects in a criminal court.

"There are undoubtedly people in the United Kingdom who are malignly-intentioned but very skillful about staying just the right side of the legal boundaries, such that they can't be brought before the criminal justice system," said Inkster.

Wednesday's decision is the latest in a series of court rulings undermining the government's tough anti-terrorism measures. Last week the European Court of Human Rights ruled that police powers to stop and search people without grounds for suspicion are illegal.

And in a report published by the United Nations Wednesday human rights investigators said the British government has been complicit in the mistreatment and possible torture of several of its own citizens during the so-called "war on terror". The report says there is clear evidence that Britain played a role in the secret detention overseas of several British Muslims.

Inkster says since the 2001 World Trade Center attack in New York, Britain's politicians and lawmakers have struggled to create a legal framework able to tackle terrorism.

"In some areas it is clear that the Terror Laws that existed prior to 2001 were deficient, had not taken adequate account of the new circumstances and I think that remains the case," he added.

He says the 'adhoc' measures put in place by the government are not always in line with British and International Law.

More than 50 people living in Britain are believed to be on the Treasury sanctions list, which means they have to apply to the government for permission to spend money. Anyone who provides them with 'an economic resource' is liable to a jail sentence.