EUROPE: Britain in the Dock; Harsh Antiterrorism Laws Run Afoul of Time-Honored Traditions of Liberty and Human Rights. Some Warn of a New 'Police State.'

Article excerpt

Byline: Carla Power (With Stefan Theil in Berlin, Friso Endt in The Hague and Edward Pentin in Rome)

Is international terrorism an emergency threatening the British nation? Tony Blair's government says so, giving authorities the right to lock up foreign terror suspects indefinitely without falling afoul of the European Convention on Human Rights. But there's a growing conviction--not merely among long-haired liberals, but within the heart of the British establishment--that Blair's war on terror is manhandling cherished Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty.

For more than three years, the British government has locked up as many as 16 foreign terror suspects in London's Belmarsh Prison--"Britain's Guantanamo"-- under emergency laws. In December, Britain's highest court, the Law Lords, ruled that such indefinite detention with-out trial discriminated against foreigners, and was disproportionate to the threat posed by terrorism. Wrote Lord Hoffman in his opinion: "The real threat to the life of the nation... comes not from terrorism, but from laws such as these."

End of story? Hardly. Late last month, Home Secretary Charles Clarke said the suspects would gradually be freed--but proposed that they be subject to new "control orders" allowing him to slap them with surveillance tags, curfews and, most controversially, indefinite house arrest. Last week came reports (which the Home Office refused to confirm or deny) that the police and security services were refusing to support Clarke. The Law Society, representing 90,000 English and Welsh lawyers, called the plan an "abuse of power." Human-rights lawyers said it smacked of the despotism of North Korea or Burma, where Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been confined for years under house arrest. George Churchill-Coleman, head of Scotland Yard's antiterrorist squad during the bloody IRA years, told The Guardian that Britain was "sinking into a police state."

Last week, the detainees' lawyers announced they were taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights. They will argue that being held without charge or trial discriminates against non-Britons, and that there's no public emergency justifying their detention. In the past, the European Court has upheld claims of states of emergency, while being tough on the measures introduced to deal with them. Yet the current terror war doesn't have the hallmarks of a classic state of emergency. Streets aren't filled with rioters; there's no apparent threat to democratic institutions. Says Gerald Staberock of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists: "If we accept there's a state of emergency, it's likely to become one that goes on forever."

As with so much in the war on terror, Britain's approach has more in common with America than its European neighbors. …