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12 June 2008

Disappointing and dangerous

MPs' decision to back the extension of pre-charge detention to 42 days is another step away from fun

By Sara MacNeice

I awoke this morning feeling rather heavy of heart, as I imagine did many others in the UK who also believe passionately in human rights. Wednesday’s vote by MPs to extend to 42 days the pre-charge detention limit for terror suspects is as disappointing as it is dangerous.

For the third time, MPs have voted to undermine basic civil liberties that date back hundreds of years, after first extending the limit to fourteen days, then 28. The fact that in 2006 they baulked at 90 days – that’s three months locked up without charge – is pretty cold comfort for human rights campaigners.

The implication of the way MPs voted should not just be measured in terms of political fallout. It’s more important than that. The vote means that UK law has moved yet another step further away from fundamental principles of fairness and the protection of human rights. People have a right to be charged promptly or to be released. It’s frankly shocking that we in the UK are losing sight of this basic principle.

No-one is questioning that the government has to protect the public from terrorism. But what many people have questioned – including senior figures from police, intelligence and judicial circles – is whether extending pre-charge detention limits will actually make anyone any safer.

Police have never needed longer than the existing 28-day limit. And a measure that alienates the Muslim population – which is likely to be most adversely affected by the new law – will surely make the police’s job even harder.

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This is a lesson that could have been learned from Northern Ireland. Instead we have fallen into the US’s discredited ‘War on Terror’ paradigm, which states that countering terrorism somehow requires removing or eroding basic guarantees of individual liberty and physical safety.

The supposed ‘concessions’ offered to MPs, such as parliamentary scrutiny of the decision to permit 42 days’ detention, are essentially meaningless. Parliament will not have any of the relevant facts in front of it when it comes to vote. And judicial safeguards are hopelessly insufficient: prosecutors will only have to persuade a judge that there are reasonable grounds for believing that further detention is ‘necessary’ for the purposes of the investigation.

What now? We human right campaigners will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and get back to work. The next stage for the Counter-terrorism Bill is the House of Lords and we will be urging them to stand up for civil liberties where MPs have failed. These are important human rights that are being taken away and we will do all we can to protect them.

Sara MacNeice is Amnesty International UK‘s Campaign Manager on terrorism, security and human rights