LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair's government stands accused of going down the road towards a police state following proposed new anti-terror laws which have prompted comparisons with repressive regimes such as Myanmar.
The row erupted late last month, when Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced a series of planned changes to the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, passed following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
That law allowed foreign nationals suspected of terrorism offences who refused to be deported to be detained indefinitely without trial, solely on the word of the home secretary.
Slammed by rights groups as creating "Britain's Guantanamo Bay", after the US center for terror suspects in Cuba, late last year the Law Lords, Britain's top court of appeal, ruled that the measure broke human rights obligations.
In response, Clarke announced on January 26 that 12 detained foreign suspects would gradually be freed.
However, under a planned change to the law they could instead be placed under "control orders", including indefinite house arrest, electronic tagging or curfews, again on the say-so of the home secretary.
The new proposals, which have yet to reach the statute books, have prompted further ire from rights groups, who point out that indefinite house arrest without trial is usually only practiced by despotic regimes such as Myanmar, also known as Burma, China and North Korea.
Louise Christian, a lawyer representing several of the detainees held under the 2001 law, has been scathing, calling the new proposals "the kind of measures aimed at people like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma".
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar's main opposition party and a Nobel Peace laureate, has been held off and on at her home by the military dictatorship in Yangon for many years.
The Guardian newspaper reported Monday that terror suspects detained at Belmarsh prison and Broadmoor high security hospital have launched a case at the European court of human rights that could wreck the government's plan to replace detention in prison with house arrest.
The new laws were also condemned by Edward Nally, president of the Law Society, which represents 90,000 lawyers in England and Wales.
"We need a proportionate response to the threat of terrorism, and not sweeping powers that turn the government into the police, judge and jury," he said.
"If you can detain someone indefinitely in their home, it is not very different from keeping them in prison," added Guy Mansfield, Chairman of the Bar Council, which represents barristers.
Since Clarke's announcement, two of the 12 foreign detainees have been freed from prison without constraint.
According to Roger Leng, a law lecturer specializing in suspects' rights at the University of Warwick, the new proposals could also contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, now part of British law.
"I thing the new (control) orders may fall foul of the European convention on Human Rights," he said.
The Law Lords "could and should" rule the law contravenes the rights convention, "and on the balance I would expect them to do so", he said.
However, Clarke, who took over as home secretary last year from the instigator of the 2001 law, David Blunkett, has stressed he is in no mood to give in to human rights groups.
Quizzed about alleged abuses against British nationals recently freed from Guantanamo Bay, Clarke made it plain he considered individual rights to come second to anti-terrorism in all areas of his role.
"I am absolutely unapologetic in saying it, that anybody in my job has to have national security at the center of their concerns," Clarke told BBC on Sunday.
"I'm all in favor of human rights, but I'm even more in favor of our national security being protected."
Rights groups remain unimpressed.
"This a glimpse of the terrifying future where everyone may be subjected to detention on the basis of secret intelligence and a politician's whim," said Shami Chakrabarti, head of civil liberties campaign organization Liberty.
Copyright © 2005 Agence France Presse