Britain fights to save anti-terrorism powers

LONDON Thu Jul 5, 2007 11:06am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - The British government launched a legal bid on Thursday to protect the use of anti-terrorism powers which ministers admit are flawed but argue are still vital for the nation's security.

"Control orders", which allow terrorism suspects to be held under partial house arrest without being convicted of a crime, have been derided by opponents as ineffective. Of 29 men who have received control orders, seven have escaped.

The orders have had a rocky ride in British courts.

They were brought in as a less severe alternative to prison after courts rejected emergency powers to jail foreign terrorism suspects indefinitely without charge. However, courts ruled that the orders, although less harsh than jail, may still violate human rights by denying suspects liberty without a trial.

The government is now attempting to reverse that decision with an appeal to Britain's highest court, the House of Lords.

Ian Burnett, who launched the government case on Thursday, said the "proliferation of al Qaeda terrorism" meant the orders were necessary to protect citizens from attack.

The powers were aimed at controlling those who could not realistically be prosecuted for terrorism offences and who could not be deported, either because they were British or because they faced torture or execution in their homeland, he said.

"Control orders are one means by which the danger of terrorism is reduced," Burnett said.

Critics argue that the powers abuse civil liberties and ignore the presumption of innocence until guilt is proved.

The case before the law lords centers on eight of the 29 suspects. The men, all Iraqi nationals, are restricted to one-bedroom flats for 18 hours a day and are restricted in their movements for the remaining hours.

Their homes are subject to police searches, all visitors have to be approved by the government and travel, phone and internet use is restricted.

The government admits the orders are flawed and is considering ways of how it can bring in new tougher measures.

Ministers hope that last week's suspected al Qaeda plot to detonate car bombs in London and Scotland will help them build cross-party support for new powers and put pressure on judges who, they argue, are out of step with public opinion.

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