British prime minister proposes new counterterrorism initiative
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed extending the detention time for suspected terrorists to 56 days and announced the creation of a new border police force.
In a controversial move on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed a multifaceted counterterrorism initiative that has already drawn substantial criticism from lawmakers and activists who say that the plan would erode civil rights. As part of the initiative, Mr. Brown proposed a law that would extend the number of days police can detain suspects without charges from 28 days to 56 days, as stipulated under the current statute. Brown said he would also create a new unified border police force to screen foreigners and British citizens entering and leaving the country.
Brown's call to extend the detainment time for uncharged terrorist suspects echoes an initiative proposed by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair following the July 2005 bombings that killed 52 and injured 700. Mr. Blair had called to lengthen detention times from 14 days to 90 days. The plan met substantial opposition, however, even from those within his own Labour Party, reports The Washington Post. In November 2005, the Parliament rejected Blair's initiative and extended uncharged detention to 90 days. Mr. Brown says that 90 days is too long, but adds that extending detention time to 56 days is necessary to fight terrorism.
Brown said he believed there was "a growing weight of opinion" that the limit needed to be increased, although he ruled out seeking 90 days. He offered several options for legislators to consider over the summer recess, all of which would require extensive judicial and legislative review. Under current law, a judge must reauthorize any detention without charge every seven days, up to the maximum of 28.
Brown said Britain needed tougher laws to "confront a generation-long challenge to defeat al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist violence." He said that there had been 15 attempted terrorist plots in Britain since 2001 and that security services were currently monitoring 2,000 individuals involved in about 30 known plots. This year alone, by his account, 30 people have been convicted in Britain in nine cases brought under anti-terrorism laws. Many of the plots involved investigations across several continents and "huge quantities" of evidence to be analyzed by police, he said.
A number of politicians and human rights activists have spoken out against Brown's proposed extension to 56 days, reports The Independent. According to the British Home Office, between 9/11 and March of this year 1,228 people were arrested for suspected involvement in terrorist plots. Of those, 669 were released without charge and only 241 were charged with crimes listed in terrorism legislation. An Amnesty International official has called the plan "an assault on human rights and freedoms."
David Cameron, the Tory leader, backed plans to allow terror suspects to be questioned after they have been charged as (an) alternative to increasing the 28-day period. He said this was the best way of letting police get on with their job "without introducing what could ... start to look like a form of internment".
Eric Metcalfe, of the human rights group Justice, said: "No amount of additional scrutiny by the courts and Parliament can prevent the injustice of an innocent person detained without charge for over a month."
Other activists have accused police lobbying groups of too much involvement in the political system when it comes to deciding how long to detain terrorist suspects, reports The New York Times. Louise Christian, a senior partner in a law firm that specializes in defending terrorism suspects said, "It should never have gone to 14. It used to be seven days."
She accused the British police, whose main lobbying organization has called for indefinite detention for questioning of terrorism suspects, of being "allowed to play an undemocratic lobbying role."
The other main aspect of Brown's plan calls for the creation of a border police force that would electronically screen everyone leaving or arriving in Britain. Brown hopes the border police would "expose terrorists hiding among the traveling public." Border police would have access to travelers' criminal records, employment histories, and spending patterns, reports The Times.
The Prime Minister said: "The way forward is electronic screening of all passengers as they check in and out of our country at ports and airports, so that terrorist suspects can be identified and stopped before they board planes, trains and boats."
The "e-borders" initiative is already being piloted on a number of routes, capturing information on 22 million passengers and leading to more than 12,000 security alerts and 1,000 arrests. It follows a series of cases where known terrorist suspects have trained overseas then returned to carry out attacks in Britain.
Britain's conservative Tory Party has long advocated such a police force, but they have objected to the one proposed by Brown, reports The Daily Telegraph. Under the newly elected prime minister's plan, the border police would be composed of officers from the Border and Immigration Agency, Revenue and Customs, and UKVisas. Tories are speaking out against Brown's vision of a border police force because it does not include elements of the existing police force.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: "Our concern is that this is simply the same old ineffective porous border control, albeit in a different uniform, instead of a new specialised unified police force equipped with the powers necessary to do the job."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said the new agency was "border force lite".
The Guardian reports that Brown also wants to win the "hearts and minds" of British Muslims to help counter extremism and terrorism. "Liberty is the first and founding value of our country," said Brown. "Security is the first duty of our government." Brown has announced a major aid package to assist the development of Britain's Islamic community.