Europe stiffens on terror suspects
Britain is trying to enact measures this week that would impose house arrest and ban Internet use.
LONDON AND SARAJEVO, BOSNIA — Sabiha Delic was pregnant the last time she saw her husband. Now her son is almost 3 and still has never seen his father.
Moustafa Ait Idir was seized from the Bosnian capital soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on charges that he was plotting to bomb the US and British Embassies there. He was subsequently dispatched to Guantánamo Bay, even though the charges were dropped.
"His only mistake was that he was born in Algeria," says Ms. Delic, referring to the man who came to Bosnia to fight alongside Muslims in the 1990s conflict. "People elsewhere in the world fight for the rights of animals, but here there are no rights. I haven't even heard his voice over the telephone."
Delic's hopes were raised a notch in recent weeks, as the Bosnian authorities stepped up efforts to get six detainees returned from US internment.
But as Bosnia may well discover, repatriation presents problems of its own. European countries have been appalled at the situation at Guantánamo Bay, where the US holds "enemy combatants," often without specific charges. But Europe's own legal processes for dealing with returnees have been murky at best - and harsh at worst - say human rights lawyers.
France has locked up four nationals for more than six months while a judge sifts the evidence against them. Britain has denied passports to four of nine people released; police and government officials will neither confirm nor deny that some remain under surveillance.
Spain, meanwhile, held its single returnee for more than four months while it investigated his supposed terror links. Russia did the same to its seven former Guantánamo inmates. Swedish and Danish intelligence services are reported to be continuing to monitor their former prisoners.
"It's very sad that you abuse people for three years and then abuse them when they get home," says Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer who has represented four of the Britons. "Apart from the incredibly bad public relations that [governments] get out of this, there is no evidence that they are getting anything worthwhile in terms of intelligence."
Lawyers say that the fact that the US released these Europeans indicates that they are not Al Qaeda foot soldiers. Instead, they say, many were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the three British former inmates dubbed the "Taliban tourists" - Muslims who say they traveled to Afghanistan out of religious curiosity.
"If there were serious charges against them the US would not have let them leave Guantánamo," says Patrick Baudouin, a French lawyer and president of the International Federation for Human Rights. "If they were released it is because they have no important charges against them."
Yet the Pentagon has identified at least seven released prisoners who have gone on to take up terrorist activities. In one notable case, Denmark's Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane announced on television that he planned to travel to Chechnya to fight with Islamic militants there.
It is against this backdrop that European governments have a delicate balancing act to perform. Some officials say there may still be useful intelligence that can be gleaned from watching and interrogating former inmates. There may also be a desire to show the US that Europe is not soft, making further releases possible. "In France, the reason the four men are still in detention is partly down to the antiterrorism tendency of French judges, and partly a show of strength and determination by France, showing the Americans that France is not weak in the face of the terrorism threat," says Mr. Baudouin.
But perhaps the main reason behind the treatment of former Guantánamo inmates is the fear of terrorism in Europe. No government wants to release men who they fear might go on to commit another bombing like the one in Madrid a year ago that killed 191 people. Public opinion generally supports strict policing in order to keep would-be terrorists at bay, regardless of the dangers to liberty.
A survey last week by YouGov, a polling agency, found that 75 percent of Britons favored action against suspects who had not committed an offense if the intelligence services believed they were planning acts of terrorism; 61 percent said national security was more important than the civil rights of suspects.
So acute is this concern that the British government is trying, in the teeth fierce opposition, to push legislation through Parliament allowing for a string of new measures that can be imposed on terror suspects.
If they are not agreed to this week, then a dozen suspects detained without charge in Britain's own "Guantánamo" at Belmarsh prison would have to be released under a ruling that found their detention illegal.
The new "control orders" could impose house arrest, curfews, electronic tagging, and bans on Internet use. Home Secretary Charles Clarke sought to justify them by citing Wendell Phillips' famous dictum: "The price of liberty is our eternal vigilance."
Professor Paul Wilkinson, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University, differs.
"I don't disagree that there is a palpable threat," says Mr. Wilkinson, "but you have to ask if you believe that people are seriously involved in terrorism, is it really sensible to try and detain them in their homes, which are hardly secure places of detention.
"It becomes a rallying point for people to say our human rights are not being respected," he says, noting that the measures would require Britain to withdraw from a key European human rights treaty. He says a better idea would be to create a special panel of judges who could hear cases where the authorities are confident of a terrorist link. Last week, normal judicial processes managed to secure a conviction of Saajid Badat, a man who confessed to plotting to blow up a US-bound plane.
"This shows our courts can do it, just as the US courts could do it," he says.
"Everybody is very concerned with security and defeating the terror threat," says Doug Jewell of Liberty, a human rights group. "But bringing in methods that undermine human rights gives the terrorist a propaganda victory."
Mr. Stafford Smith is more succinct. "If the British continue doing what they are going to do, it's going to end with some massive explosion in London," he says. "We are inspiring a lot of people to hate us."