International Herald Tribune
British House of Lords rejects proposal to allow extended detention of terror suspects
By Raymond Bonner
Monday, October 13, 2008
LONDON: After nearly 12 hours of often-intelligent and ever-passionate debate over two days, the House of Lords on Monday overwhelmingly rejected a Labour government proposal to allow the authorities to extend the time the police can hold terrorist suspects to 42 days, from 28, without charges.
The vote was 309 to 118, with many Labour members joining Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and independents in opposition.
The defeat was a setback for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had invested considerable political capital in getting the bill through the House of Commons in June, where it passed by only nine votes.
Since coming to office last year, Brown's poll ratings have steadily declined, but he has enjoyed a slight rebound for his response to the financial crisis.
Brown and the supporters of the 42-day detention period argued that it was needed because of the complex nature of terrorism investigations, which cross borders and usually involve decrypting computer files.
They also argued that the terrorist threat in Britain has increased. It was an argument that some lords accepted, but they still voted against the bill.
Opposition to the law was widespread, across the political spectrum and even among high level counterterrorism officials. Two former heads of the MI5, Britain's domestic spy agency, Stella Remington and Eliza Manningham-Buller, criticized the law as wrong in principle, unneeded in practice and a move that would alienate the Muslim community.
In a speech to the House of Lords, Manningham-Buller said: "In deciding what I believe on these matters, I have weighed up the balance between the right to life, the most import civil liberty, the fact that there is no such thing as complete security and the importance of our hard won civil liberties. And therefore on a matter of principle, I cannot support the 42-days pre-charge detention."
Peter Goldsmith, the British attorney general under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, called the law "pernicious." The law was "not only unnecessary but also counterproductive," Goldsmith said in a column published Monday in The Guardian newspaper.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, the columnist Philip Johnston described the law as "draconian" and said that it would "sign away basic freedoms which have long formed the very backbone of our society," going back to the Magna Carta.
About 40 of Britain's most famous writers used their pens to protest the law, writing poems, essays, satires and short stories that were published online at www.42writers.com.
British law already allows terrorist suspects to be held for 28 days without charge, one of the longest such periods in the world.
In the United States, the maximum period that a citizen can be held under federal law is 48 hours, though under the Patriot Act, quickly passed after the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001, a noncitizen can be held for as long as seven days without charges.
A study by Liberty, a human rights organization in Britain, concluded that no other European democracy permitted anything close to 28 days' detention without trial.
The longest was 7.5 days in Turkey, 6 in France and 5 in Russia, the organization said. Under recent legislation, Australia now permits a detention of 14 days without trial.
"I don't really care what any other country does," Alan West, the Home Office minister, said during a powerful speech in support of the bill in the House of Lords on Monday evening. He added: "You're bloody lucky to live in this country."
The law is not dead yet. Brown could go back to the Commons but it was not clear if he would continue the struggle. In an editorial Monday, The Financial Times newspaper urged him to drop the effort. "A Lords defeat should be the last we hear of this contentious, damaging plan," the editorial said.