British lawmakers debated unpopular plans on Tuesday to extend the number of days British police can hold terrorism suspects in custody before they are charged.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown hopes to give police up to 42 days to detain suspects before charges are filed, extending the current limit of 28 days.
Brown said the extension could be needed to cope with simultaneous terror attacks, when complex investigations are likely to slow the ability of police to gather evidence.
But many lawmakers, civil liberties campaigners and some key counterterrorism officials insist that no change is needed to current laws.
“In our experience, the 28-day limit works well,” Britain’s chief prosecutor, Ken Macdonald, told The Times of London on Tuesday, saying he does not back Brown’s proposals for tougher terror laws.
Tony Blair, Brown’s predecessor, suffered a humiliating first parliamentary defeat in 2005, when lawmakers voted against his plan to extend the maximum detention to 90 days. Legislators instead settled on the 28-day limit.
Brown said on Tuesday the new laws would include a raft of safeguards and insisted the 42-day limit would only be used after Parliament had voted to authorize it in each case.
“The most important thing is that Parliament has got to vote,” Brown told reporters at his Downing Street office. “There will come a time when there are multiple plots or particular difficulties emerge where we will have to ask for a greater detention power than 28 days.”
Police have so far not had to release any terrorism suspect because investigators failed to build a case within the current limits. But Brown says Britain should legislate now for a future scenario.
“Gradually, people are coming to realize that there is a case for a new proposal that balances off the needs of security, which are real and urgent in some cases, with the need to protect the individual liberties of the citizen against arbitrary treatment,” he said.
Nick Clegg, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats said any extension would be an erosion of civil liberties. ‘We will fight tooth and nail against any further extension,” he said.
Opponents believe that holding suspects for long periods without filing charges would likely increase public distrust of the police and government, particularly among Britain’s Muslim communities.
“To hold someone for more than 1,000 hours without charge would be an international disgrace,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty.
Sections of the legislation – which also includes a proposal for creation of a specialist national database to store DNA samples from suspected terrorists – will be studied by lawmakers for several weeks.
Legislators are expected to vote on whether to pass the proposals into law in May, when Brown will seek to avoid his own first parliamentary defeat.
British Lawmakers “should refuse to be part of this assault on UK civil liberties,” said Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International in Britain. “There is a real opportunity to defeat this bill and take a stand for human rights.” (AP)
UK’s Brown faces scrutiny over plans to toughen terror laws