Britain is considering setting up secretive courts to make it easier to prosecute terrorist suspects — and to hold them without charge for longer than the current 14 days — as part of the crackdown following the deadly London bombings, officials said Tuesday.
The Home Office said it was weighing changing the pretrial process to deal with particularly sensitive terror cases, with the aim of “securing more prosecutions.” Currently, terror suspects can be held for two weeks without charge; after they are charged, police can no longer question them. Police have asked the government to extend this period to three months.
The anti-terrorist courts — run by judges with high-level security clearance — would meet behind closed doors to study the merits of the case against terror suspects, rule on highly sensitive evidence and decide how long the suspect could be held, The Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday, citing unidentified Home Office officials.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because government policy bars her from being quoted by name, confirmed a new pretrial procedure is under consideration, but couldn’t provide any other details.
‘A sensible period’
“I want to emphasize: There is no question of secret trials, there is no question of jury-less trials, there is no question of any sort of internment,” Britain’s chief legal official, Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. “What is being suggested is ... just a sensible period to detain suspects while a sensible investigation is going on.”
The July 7 bombings and the failed attacks two weeks later prompted the British government to propose new anti-terrorism laws aimed at rooting out Islamic extremists. The sweeping measures, which could include deporting foreigners to countries where torture is believed to be widespread, sparked concern Tuesday from the U.N. special envoy on torture.
Human rights laws now prevent Britain from deporting people to a country where they may face torture or death. But Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to win pledges from the countries that they would not subject deportees to inhumane treatment.
An agreement has been reached with Jordan, and Britain is talking to Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Blair also said the government might amend Britain’s human rights legislation to make it easier to deport Islamic extremists.
“If there is a substantial risk in a certain country like Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, etc., then diplomatic assurances cannot be used,” U.N. envoy Manfred Nowak told BBC radio. “If a country usually and systematically practices torture, then of course they would deny they were doing it because it is absolutely prohibited.”
Other measures being considered by the government involve turning up the pressure on radical Muslim clerics believed to support the militants.
Amid growing calls to charge some clerics under incitement and treason laws, one of the most radical firebrand leaders left Britain.
‘Muslims are under siege’
Sheik Omar Bakri, who earned a reputation for extremism during his 20 years in Britain, announced Tuesday that he was in Lebanon. Bakri said he was visiting relatives.
“Enjoy your holiday — make it a long one,” Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said when asked about Bakri at a news conference. Bakri has dual Syrian and Lebanese citizenship, and has permission to live in Britain.
“Provisionally, (Bakri) left for a month, obviously he will be monitoring the situation to determine if it is feasible to return,” Bakri’s close associate Anjem Choudary told The Associated Press. “I think he would return if the political situation changed in this country ... (but) it is incumbent upon Muslims to go to a place where they can propagate Islam and now in Britain, Muslims are under siege.”
Bakri has made it clear that if he is told that he is not welcome in Britain, he won’t return, Choudary said. “Good,” Prescott said when told that.
“I don’t think he is welcome by many people in this country, is he?” Prescott said. “But at the moment he has the right to come in and out. ... It’s a democracy, not a dictatorship, for God’s sake.”
Broad exclusionary powers now exist
Home Secretary Charles Clarke already has wide-ranging powers to exclude people from the country if he finds their “presence is not conducive to the public good” or based on national security reasons, the Home Office spokeswoman said.
Last year, Britain barred 14 people from entering the country — 12 for national security reasons, the spokeswoman said. The Home Office refused to comment on specific cases.
The Crown Prosecution Service has said it would investigate whether Bakri’s past comments — which have included reported praise for the Sept. 11 attacks — fall under laws banning inciting violence.
In Egypt, authorities Tuesday released an Egyptian chemist, Magdy el-Nashar, who had been sought by Britain in connection with the July 7 attacks, which killed at least 56 people, including four suspected suicide bombers.
El-Nashar said after he was freed that he knew two of the bombers casually. Egyptian authorities said they found no evidence against him.