Human Rights Watch: UK: Halt Efforts to Extend Pre-Charge Detention

OCTOBER 22, 2007
2:10 PM

CONTACT: Human Rights Watch

UK: Halt Efforts to Extend Pre-Charge Detention
Counterterrorism Bill Should Abide by ‘Rules of the Game’

LONDON - October 22 - The British government should abandon its effort to extend pre-charge detention in terrorism cases beyond the current 28-day limit, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. The home secretary is due to give evidence on Monday to the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee on proposed counterterrorism legislation, including extended detention. “Locking up suspects without charge for months at a time is wrong in principle, and wrong in practice,” said Benjamin Ward, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It violates the basic right to liberty and risks alienating British Muslims.”

Human Rights Watch’s 26-page briefing paper, “UK: Counter the Threat or Counterproductive? – Commentary on Proposed Counterterrorism Measures,” analyzes Home Office counterterrorism proposals from July in light of the UK’s international human rights obligations. The measures are likely to form part of a draft counterterrorism bill to be presented to parliament later this year.

The prime minister has spoken about doubling the pre-charge detention limit to 56 days. The current 28-day period is already the longest in the European Union. The Human Rights Watch paper concludes that a further extension would violate human rights law and be counterproductive in the effort to win the trust of Muslim communities, which is necessary to counter the threat of terrorism.

Recent statements from the government suggest that it has moved away from Tony Blair’s assertion in the wake of the July 2005 transport attacks in London that human rights should be set aside when combating terrorism. Home Office Counterterrorism Minister Tony McNulty has acknowledged that “the rules of the game haven’t changed,” while Prime Minister Gordon Brown emphasizes the need to win hearts and minds to successfully confront terrorism. These statements reflect a greater prominence within the government on preventing radicalization and recruitment as a core element in its counterterrorism strategy.

“The government is finally saying the right things about human rights and security,” said Ward. “But the proof will be in the policy. If the government is serious about playing by the rules, it should shelve extended pre-charge detention.”

The briefing paper concludes that a further extension of detention would create a significant risk of unjust extended detention. According to government figures, over half of all those arrested as part of terrorism investigations since 2001 were released without charge. Were detention further extended, it is highly likely that terrorism suspects, most of them Muslim, would be detained for extended periods and then released without charge.

The experience of internment in Northern Ireland and the indefinite detention of foreign terrorism suspects at Belmarsh prison indicate that such measures can sour community relations and undermine cooperation with the police.

The Human Rights Watch briefing paper recommends that the government improve safeguards for the current 28-day period, and a relaxation of the ban on intercept evidence. It also calls on the government to narrow the definition of terrorism, and improve safeguards for a new notification system for those convicted of terrorism-related offenses.