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Leader: Infringing rights of suspects

20 February 2008

IN ITS deliberations on the treatment of terrorist suspects, the General Synod properly concentrated on the length of time that suspects can be held without charge. The issue is currently exercising the Government, which has applied to extend the period from 28 days to 42. In the Queen’s Speech last autumn, there was a pledge to “seek a consensus on changes to the law on terrorism” (Leader comment, 9 November). The Synod voted that an extension would be unacceptable. Opposition parties and civil-liberties groups have objected. It will be interesting to see whether the consensus that the Government believes it has secured after a very unsatisfactory public debate will survive a parliamentary vote.

The Synod gave less time to the matter of control orders, and yet these are potentially just as destructive of human rights in the UK. Those subjected to their restrictions suffer not for a mere six weeks, but for a year at a time. Control orders were introduced in the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act. They were quickly challenged on the grounds that they infringed the European Convention of Human Rights, and were subsequently altered. One type of order, “derogating orders”, is acknowledged to breach the Convention, but none has yet been imposed. The other type, “non-derogating orders”, is said not to breach the Convention, because it stops short of depriving the suspect of liberty. Instead, orders of this kind can involve curfews, the insistence that the suspect report to an official at a specific time and place, the banning of mobile phones and internet access, the repeated search of homes, etc. There are at present 14 of these control orders in force, eight of which have been imposed on British citizens.

Given the potential mayhem that a terrorist attack might cause, Lord Carlile of Berriew QC said this week in his third annual review of the system that the use of control orders was justified: “I remain of the view that, as a last resort (only), the control order system as operated currently in its non-derogating form is a justifiable and proportional safety valve for the proper protection of society.”

The numbers are not large, but one theme to emerge from the Synod debate on Thursday of last week was Christ’s concern for individuals. The idea that the loss of one or two people’s liberty is a small price to pay for freedom from terrorism is anathema, not least because so simplistic a formula never works. Besides, it must be recalled that these 14 must still be deemed innocent. No charges have been levelled against them, and no evidence has been produced in open court to justify the control orders. Their treatment, bordering on house arrest, is founded on suspicion based on secret information, unchallengeable by the suspects’ lawyers. Were a UK citizen to be subjected to similar treatment anywhere else in the world — even in Guantanamo Bay — the Government would be forced to protest.

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