updated 1/26/2005 4:56:50 PM ET 2005-01-26T21:56:50

The British government Wednesday proposed sweeping new powers to control suspected terrorists, including electronic tagging, curfews and house arrest of people who have not been convicted of crimes.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke said the new “control orders” would apply to both foreigners and British nationals, and he promised to introduce legislation as soon as possible.

Eleven foreigners who have been held without charge as suspected terrorists for three years will not be released until the new powers were in place, he added.

“There remains a public emergency threatening the life of the nation,” Clarke told the House of Commons. “The threat is real and I believe that the steps I am announcing today will enable us more effectively to meet that threat.”

Opposition party cautions
The opposition Conservative Party, however, said the proposals could backfire.

“Unless the process is clearly just, the home secretary could find himself confining one known terrorist only to recruit for our enemies 10 unknown terrorists,” said David Davis, the Conservative spokesman on law and order.

Clarke said the government’s preferred approach remained trying terrorist suspects in court. But he said in some cases prosecution was impossible “given the need to protect highly sensitive sources and techniques.”

Instead, control orders could be imposed if there were “reasonable grounds” for suspecting terrorist activity — a lower standard of proof than is required in trials.

Measures would include a ban on meeting certain people, restricting access to telecommunications such as the Internet, curfews and tagging. “At the top end, control orders would include a requirement to remain at their premises,” Clarke said.

“Such orders would be preventive, designed to disrupt those seeking to carry out attacks whether here or elsewhere or who are planning or otherwise supporting such activities,” he added.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman denied a suggestion that the measures were designed to deal with the four Britons who returned home Tuesday from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

11 foreigners held in Britain
He said Clarke’s announcement was a response to a ruling last month by Britain’s highest court that it was illegal for the government to imprison 11 foreigners indefinitely without charge.

The men, from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, have been held under anti-terrorism legislation rushed through Parliament shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

The law allows the government to hold foreigners if there are “reasonable grounds to suspect” they are linked to terrorist groups, and if their lives would be endangered if they were deported to their home countries.

But the House of Lords ruled that this was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and said the law was discriminatory, as it only applied to foreigners. Clarke said the government accepted that ruling.

The government is under pressure to release the men from London’s high security Belmarsh prison — dubbed Britain’s Guantanamo Bay.

Debate on their danger
Clarke said he believed the men “continue to pose a threat to national security” and that they would not be released until the control orders were in place.

He told the Commons he was exploring whether the men could be deported and was seeking assurances from their countries of origin that they would not face torture or the death sentence if they returned home.

Ian Macdonald, who resigned from an official panel of barristers representing those prisoners, said a proposal for house arrest was “outrageous.”

“If you’re going to keep people in some sort of house arrest or in prison, you really have to take account of what I think is a fundamental principle, that people are presumed innocent,” Macdonald said.

“If they’re really dangerous, they should be charged under criminal law.”

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