Britain's civil liberties in spotlight after Parliament raid

Politicians and the press have protested police's decision to raid Parliament and arrest Conservative MP Damian Green.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    British parliamentarian Damian Green (c.) was back at work Wednesday. Last week, police raided his office as part of an investigation into the leaking of government documents.
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In the 2-1/2 years since 52 London commuters were killed by suicide bombers, Britons have become accustomed to news of police swoops on the homes of suspected terrorists.

But a counterterrorist unit's series of raids last week sparked shock and anger because of the unlikely target – a Conservative member of Parliament.

Officers didn't just search the home of Damian Green – they arrested him, raided his office, and detained him for nine hours as part of an investigation into the leaking of government documents.

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The raids have led to an outcry among lawmakers, the press, civil liberties groups, callers to phone-in shows, and writers to letter columns who have long accused the government of eroding civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. Many are calling for protection from a "police state."

A debate has already been under way about whether too many "Big Brother" laws are coming into force, most notably after recent government attempts to institute a national identity card and to extend the number of days some suspects can be held without charge. The affair also comes in the wake of an outcry earlier this year over the bugging of an MP visiting a constituent in prison.

Mr. Green, who was released on bail without charge, was arrested for conspiring to "commit misconduct in public office," which is not an antiterrorist law. He is accused by detectives of "grooming" a civil servant in an attempt to obtain sensitive government documents. The parliamentarian has a history of using leaked documents relating to immigration issues to embarrass the government. (Editor's note: The original version incorrectly implied that Green himself leaked documents.)

The civil servant helping Green, who was arrested earlier last month, said through his lawyer this week that he had regularly leaked documents to Green for nearly two years "in the public interest," because the information was "important for the public to know in an open and democratic parliamentary system."

Opposition parties and the press have reacted with anger. What hope is left for the general public if an MP is "quizzed for telling the truth," wrote a columnist for "The Sun," a major British taboid.

Despite the outcry, much of the public has shown a more tempered reaction. Many people appear to approve of controversial changes in the law. A YouGov poll published in the Daily Telegraph in June found that 69 percent of Britons supported ill-fated plans to hold terror suspects for up to 42 days, rather than 28, before they are charged.

Many Britons today feel far less in control of their lives and are content to let the government take on a more authoritarian role of "guardian," says Mark Garnett, a lecturer at Lancaster University and author of a 2007 study on British society.

"Politics used to be concerned with vision and ideology, but increasingly we live in a world where political options are closed down by globalization. Instead, the government now sees its main purpose as ensuring security," he says.

On Wednesday the acting head of London's Metropolitan Police Force said that his officers, rather than government ministers, decided to arrest the politician.

"The police must be able to act without fear or favor, on any investigation whomsoever may be involved, when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that they may have committed criminal offences," he said.

The controversy cast a shadow Wednesday over an important date in the British calendar, the Queen's Speech, when the monarch visits Parliament to deliver an address laying out the legislative agenda for the coming year.

Following the queen's address, MPs listened to a statement on the Green affair by the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, who said he "regrets" that police were allowed to search Green's office without a warrant. Mr. Martin had angered MPs for letting police into Parliament – an almost unheard-of event.

MPs have challenged claims by the British Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, the MP appointed to oversee the police, that she did not know Green was under investigation. She defended the police's right to arrest the MP and said the investigation was examining a "systematic series of leaks" of potentially sensitive material.

Ms. Smith also denied accusations that the operation amounted to "Stalinism." "In my book, Stalinism and a police state happens when ministers direct and interfere with specific investigations that the police are carrying out," she said.

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