Crackdown after London attacks raises concerns about civil rights

Monday, August 15, 2005

LONDON -- Secret trials. Curbing free speech. Three months in jail without charge.

British authorities have hesitated to crack down in the past, largely because of human rights concerns and court actions that allowed radical Islamic activists to operate freely in Britain for years -- raising money, beaming satellite TV spots and running Internet sites that condemn America and support al-Qaida.

No more.

The July bombings in London changed all that, much like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks led to stepped up security in the United States -- and a rollback in civil liberties -- in the name of national security.

Critics and the Muslim community are raising concerns that the balance is being skewed between the rights of individuals and the need to prevent another attack in a country where many concepts of civil rights first took hold.

"I think we are getting into some dangerous territory," said Sonya Sceats, an expert on international human rights law at the Chatham House think tank. "And that we are starting to abrogate some of the principles we use to define ourselves."

Not only is Britain proposing to crack down on radical groups, close certain bookshops and deport hate-mongering clerics to countries that permit torture, Prime Minister Tony Blair signaled he may reconsider aspects of the Human Rights Act, a law some activists here had hoped would become the British equivalent of America's Bill of Rights.

Conservative Party spokesman Patrick Mercer said the country needed to strengthen border controls, create a homeland security office and do a better job of informing the public about what to watch for in terms of terrorist attacks -- and what to do in an emergency.

Britain's police argue that authorities should be allowed to hold suspects without charge for as long as three months -- rather than the two weeks now allowed under terrorism laws -- because the global phenomenon requires time and expertise to combat.

Police also want a new law making it a crime to withhold information on computer encryption and the right to suppress what was described as inappropriate Internet usage.

The soul-searching over how to battle al-Qaida while keeping Britain a free society mirrors a debate that has raged since Sept. 11. Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says U.S. and British security fears are feeding off one another.

For example, New York City implemented random searches of subway riders' bags after the London attacks -- although there was no apparent suggestion of a U.S. link, Romero said. After Sept. 11, some U.S. officials suggested creation of a domestic spying agency like Britain's MI5.

Romero is even more worried because Britain had been counted on to criticize, for example, U.S. detention policies of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Now you can de-fang one of the closest critics of the Bush administration's civil liberties policies," he said. "Now you can point to their own policies."

Britain and America have in the past championed human rights around the world, but could find their standing as watchdogs undermined, he said. "It will certainly undercut the ability of both governments to be advocates for changes on the world scene."

Police say mistakes may be made, but that cannot deter them. As London reeled from the deadly July 7 attacks on three subway trains and a bus -- which killed 52 people and the four bombers -- and a series of failed bombings two weeks later, police gunned down a Brazilian electrician inside a subway car, mistakenly believing he was a suicide bomber.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair apologized to the family, then warned that police would shoot to kill again to protect the city from suicide bombers -- a stark message in a country where most police don't carry guns.

Police investigating the attacks have arrested 40 people, charging 14 people in all.

A sweep last week not directly related to the attacks netted 10 foreigners -- including firebrand Muslim cleric Abu Qatada -- so they could be deported in the interests of national security. Officials also barred radical Muslim cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed from returning to the country, saying his presence is no longer "conducive to the public good."

Britain has refused in the past to deport people to countries where they may face torture, though Blair's government has in recent days been securing separate agreements with Jordan, Algeria and Egypt to ensure deportees aren't harmed. Britain's top legal official, Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio that the government may seek to amend human rights legislation to make the deportations easier.

"The deportee has got rights, but so have the people of this country," he said.

Security experts like Bob Ayers, also of Chatham House, said what Britain really needs to do is enforce laws already on the books that ban inciting hate.

"The right to free speech does not include calling for the death of the infidel," Ayers said. "It doesn't include calling for the overthrow of the country they live in."

Ayers said the prime minister is trying to obscure the government's failure to act against fundamentalists in the past, but has done little more than buy himself two months before parliament returns from summer recess.

"Until the government actually begins to move -- and move aggressively -- we're not going to accomplish anything," he said. "Talk is cheap."

Blair signaled that radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the successor organization to the now-disbanded al-Muhajiroun will be banned in the future. Hizb-ut-Tahrir says they'll fight such a ban in court.

"We are not terrorists," said Jamal Harwood, a spokesman for Hizb-ut-Tahrir. "We are working within the Muslim community, channeling discontent toward political change in the Muslim world."

The group has called for the formation of an Islamic caliphate and is banned in several countries in Central Asia. But Harwood suggested it was being targeted for opposing British and American policies.

"Opposition to Bush's and Blair's foreign policy is not terrorism," Harwood said.

As authorities debated how to approach the new threat, at least some leaders argued that the answer to every problem is not necessarily creating new laws -- or imposing new restrictions.

Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said safety and security are strengthened when the police manage to win the hearts of the community -- and gain cooperation as a result.

"We should be working harder with communities so they trust the police," she said. "They aren't going to give information if they think their loved ones are going to be shot by the police."

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