Friday, March 11, 2005

British Parliament Debates while freeing Terrorists

UK Terrorism Debate Rages As Suspects Go Free

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain began releasing foreign suspects held under a discredited terrorism law on Friday as politicians remained locked in a rare round-the-clock debate to replace the powers before they expire. Cars were seen driving out of London's maximum security Belmarsh jail carrying some of the detainees. Others were being held at a mental hospital. The Home Office said all eight were likely to be freed soon on bail. They include the man accused of being the spiritual inspiration for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. The men have been held for up to three years without charge or trial under emergency laws, which were passed after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 and ruled unlawful by judges last year and expire on Sunday.
Both of Britain's houses of parliament, the Commons and the Lords, debated through the night, battling over powers Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to replace the expiring measures.
The unelected Lords repeatedly voted to block the bill, an act unprecedented in modern times, in a standoff that pit centuries-old rights against the need to protect Britain.
Blair, who faces an election expected in May, insisted he was not using the debate as a campaign issue.
"I am not interested in either the parliamentary skirmishing or in trying to create some great political issue out of this," he told Sky News. "I don't want terrorism to be an issue at all. I thought we could get this measure through by consent."
He dismissed suggestions he might call the election early.
Parliament was due to shut on Thursday. But official timekeepers stopped the clock at one minute to midnight to allow the rowdy debate to go on.
The old law allowed foreigners to be detained indefinitely without charge if suspected of terrorism. The new measures would apply to Britons as well, allowing the government to impose a range of restrictions, up to house arrest without trial.
Both require Britain to suspend the right to a fair trial guaranteed under European law, the only country to do so.
The elected Commons backed Blair after he made concessions.
But the unelected Lords, who by convention are expected to yield to the elected chamber, refused to back down, saying the new measures revoke ancient and fundamental rights.
Bleary-eyed Lords, many elderly, returned to reject the bill at 0500 GMT after a few hours sleep in offices or nearby hotels. By early afternoon, they showed no signs of a quick climbdown, with the bill set to ping pong between the two chambers through the rest of Friday at least.
A black-clad official in a wig carried the bill back and forth through the ornate corridors of Westminster between the two chambers as each voted to reject the other's version.
Politicians noted the debate had dragged into the first anniversary of train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid.
Lawyers said the suspects would be freed on bail under the expiring law, or released under restrictions imposed under the new law. Either way, they would be electronically tagged.
They include Abu Qatada, a Syrian cleric who the government says was a spiritual mentor to Mohammed Atta, leader of the hijackers who staged the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. cities.
Opponents to the government's bill -- many from within Blair's Labor Party -- say it is badly drafted or draconian.
They say Blair has exaggerated threats in the past, pointing to the failure to find banned weapons in Iraq which Blair used to justify joining the U.S.-led invasion.
"We are back to where we were after the war in Iraq when Mr. Blair misrepresented the advice of the security services," Conservative Party leader Michael Howard told BBC radio.
"(Trust) now comes to the forefront of the argument."