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U.K. House of Lords rejects detention plan

Britain's House of Lords rejected a controversial plan to extend the amount of time police can hold terror suspects without charge from 28 to 42 days and the government said it would abandon the proposal.
Britain Terror Laws
Britain's Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, reads a statement to the House of Commons, Monday. Plans to increase pre-charge terror detention to 42 days will be dropped from the Counter Terrorism Bill, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Britain's House of Lords rejected a controversial plan to extend the amount of time police can hold terror suspects without charge from 28 to 42 days and the government said it would abandon the proposal.

The 309-118 vote came after an impassioned debate Monday, dealing the government a significant defeat. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said hours after the vote that the government would drop the 42-day clause from the government's counterterrorism bill.

But Smith said a different version would be put into new legislation even though it wouldn't be automatic — prosecutors would have to apply to a court each time they wanted a terror suspect held for that long and Parliament would then have to vote on each case if the court agreed to it.

The government had said the initial proposal — endorsed by the House of Commons in June by a margin of only nine votes — was needed to fight the complex international terrorist threats facing Britain.

Issue divides Britons
The issue has divided Britons in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks raised fears of terrorism. At the time, there was a two-day limit on detention without charge, which could be increased to seven days with court permission.

The government's effort to strengthen counterterrorism provisions gathered pace after suicide bombers killed 52 rush-hour commuters in London in July 2005.

But then-Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered his first major defeat in the House of Commons later that year when he tried to extend the limit to 90 days. Eventually, a 28-day limit was enacted — the longest detention period in 15 Western democracies studied by the British rights group Liberty, according to spokeswoman Jen Corlew.

A number of prominent politicians, writers and the Council of Europe had attacked the 42-day detention plan as a threat to civil liberties. The council, Europe's top human rights watchdog, said the proposal would have imperiled the right to a fair trial.

Blair and his successor, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have maintained that extra time is needed to build cases against terrorism suspects because of their extensive contacts overseas and their use of multiple computers.

Andy Hayman, a former police officer who headed London's counterterrorism operations until last year, has said an extension of the detention time allowed before charges are brought is needed to tackle increasingly complex terrorism cases.

Failed terror attacks since 2005
There have been a number of thwarted or failed attacks in Britain since the 2005 commuter bombings. Two men are currently on trial for allegedly trying to ram a flaming Jeep into Glasgow airport in June 2007 after failing to detonate car bombs outside a London nightclub and bus stop.

Opponents of the 42-day measure note that there have not been any cases when 28 days were needed to evaluate a terrorism suspect, and say this shows that the extension to 42 days is unnecessary.

The effort to stop the proposal received a boost this weekend when 42 prominent British writers banded together to denounce the plan as antidemocratic in essays, stories and satires.

Opposition legislator Chris Huhne of the Liberal Democrats called the House of Lords vote "a crushing defeat" for the government and said the government had "completely lost" the argument over the best way to combat terrorism.

The House of Lords, which is not elected, has seen its power curtailed in recent years by a series of reforms, but it still plays an important role by reviewing and voting on legislation passed by the House of Commons.