Britain's Brown survives a close vote

June 12, 2008|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown survived a crucial battle of nerves with Parliament yesterday over expanding Britain's anti-terrorism laws, securing initial approval to hold terrorism suspects for up to 42 days before they are charged or freed.

The legislation squeaked through the House of Commons by nine votes amid concerns that it could threaten innocent citizens with the loss of their homes, jobs and social networks even if they are released after spending six weeks behind bars.

The increasingly unpopular Brown faces mounting dissent among his Labor Party ranks, and political unrest has reached a high pitch over the counterterrorism bill, which many Labor lawmakers see as a betrayal of the party's commitment to civil rights.

About three dozen Labor Party members broke ranks and opposed the 42-day detention proposal, which passed only with the help of lawmakers from the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which spent years combating terrorism by the Irish Republican Army.

The Conservative Party bucked popular support within its base for getting tough on terrorism and opposed the 42-day limit.

"Liberty is the common strand that binds us together, and we have shed blood to protect it, both abroad and at home. Today, the government asks us to shed some of that liberty," lawmaker David Davis, the Conservative Party's leader on law enforcement affairs, said of the proposed new limits.

Government officials, who pushed through the changes after months of lobbying and compromise, warned that the expanding number and complexity of terrorist plots makes it necessary to give police more time to complete their investigations.

Brown told lawmakers that the plot uncovered in 2006 to bomb trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid explosives forced police to sift through the contents of 400 computers, 8,000 compact discs and 25,000 exhibits. As a result, he said, several of the suspects in the case were detained for 27 days before being charged.

Government officials said they are monitoring more than 200 terrorist groups in Britain.

"The threat is more ruthless than any we have faced before. It aims for mass casualties, uses suicide methods and would use dirty bombs if given half a chance," Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, said during yesterday's parliamentary debate.

"Terrorists living and working in our society have learned how to use technology to cover their tracks," she said. "They travel a network, sharing experiences and learning from mistakes. Terrorist plots in this country now almost invariably involve multiple connections to many countries overseas.

"That alone creates huge technological and logistical challenges for investigators."

The amendments to the counterterrorism law, approved by a vote of 315-306, extend an existing 28-day limit that human rights groups say is already the longest among developed, democratic nations.

The Muslim Council of Britain has warned that extending the allowable period of detention before charges are filed could damage relations between young Muslims and the police and undermine Britain's moral authority around the world.

In concessions in recent weeks to win passage, the government specified that the maximum 42-day detention period can only be used in cases where there is a "grave, exceptional terrorist threat," and Parliament must approve the extension within seven days.

Defendants would be brought before a judge within 48 hours, who would review their detention weekly.

The revisions go to the House of Lords, where strong opposition and amendments are expected, resulting in its likely return to the House of Commons this year for another round of voting.

Opponents have said that the European Court of Human Rights could also decide that the legislation, if it is adopted, does not conform with European human rights law.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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