UK compares terror law experience
By Paul Reynolds World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website, 12 oct 2005
The Foreign Office has produced a document comparing anti-terrorist legislation in 10 Western countries which it hopes will help justify new British anti-terrorism legislation.
The document was produced to coincide with the publication of its latest anti-terrorist bill allowing the detention of suspects for up to 90 days.
The comparisons indicate that Britain is trying to combine elements of continental legal practices into the British common law system to allow longer questioning of suspects.
In the French and Spanish systems, an investigating magistrate can hold and question suspects for up to four years.
In common law jurisdictions – in which there is a clearer separation of powers between the police and the judiciary – the time limit is much less. In Britain it is currently 14 days, in Australia 7 days.
In the United States, also a common law jurisdiction, there is a special provision enabling a US citizen to be declared an « enemy combatant » and therefore subject to indefinite detention. However, on US soil, this has been used in only three cases.
Limit to questioning
The British official said a serious problem for the British police was that once someone had been charged, he or she could not be questioned further.
The three-month period proposed, he indicated, was a way round that obstacle, which did not exist in France or Spain. It would give police more time to develop lines of inquiry, to search premises and would even, the official said, allow for periods in which a Muslim suspect could not be questioned for religious reasons.
Everywhere there has been an evolution towards giving ourselves a more effective means of coping with an increasingly complex
Challenge British official
The official said that in the face of a common threat, each country had developed its own answer but each had felt it necessary to update its legislation.
« This is to an extent comparing apples and pears and the differing legal systems means different laws but everywhere there has been an evolution towards giving ourselves a more effective means of coping with an increasingly complex challenge, » he said.
Ten countries are compared in the document, some with legal systems similar to that of the UK and some not. They are Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United States.
These are some of the laws for questioning terrorist suspects who are citizens of the country concerned:
Australia: Normally, initial questioning for four hours, increased to 24 by a magistrate. The Australian Intelligence Organisation can apply for a warrant to hold a person for up to 168 hours.
Canada : Terrorist suspects have the same rights as any other accused. However a suspect can be forced to answer questions even if the answers might be incriminating, though this cannot be used as evidence.
France: An examining magistrate is in charge of the investigation and can hold a suspect pre-trial for up to two years for crimes with a 10-year sentence or less and up to four years for crimes with larger sentences. This enables investigations to continue.
Germany: Detention has to be reviewed by a judge at intervals of not more than six months.
Greece: Suspects can be held for up to 12 months under court orders and in extraordinary circumstances, for up to 18 months.
Italy: Suspects can be held without access to lawyers for 24 hours to enable identification to be checked.
Norway: Normally the maximum is 48 hours. This can extended without limit, but in practice it is rarely very long.
Spain: Suspects can be held incommunicado for 72 hours. Thereafter a magistrate can order preventive detention. If charged, a person can then be held pre-trial for up to two years and for up to four years for more serious offences.
Sweden : Regular penal law is applied unless special terrorist intent is shown, in which case longer sentences are available.
United States: A US citizen can be declared an « enemy combatant » if there is sufficient evidence of that – for example, being caught on a foreign battlefield. However only three cases have been so declared and in one case, the suspect was deported to Saudi Arabia. Normally, US citizens are subject to the regular law but foreigners can be held in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The document also examines how the other 10 countries deport unwanted people.
This has proved a difficult issue in the UK because the courts have insisted on a strict interpretation of Article 3 of the Human Rights Act which prevents anyone from being tortured. The courts say this should also apply in the country to which the deportee is sent.
The British government has therefore sought agreements with potential receiving countries which give assurances of humane treatment. Jordan and Algeria have so far signed such agreements.
But the British government also wants the European Court of Human Rights to agree that there should be a national security consideration in any appeal against deportation. At the moment, the emphasis is very much on the rights of the deportee.
The Dutch government is currently challenging this emphasis in a case which the British government has joined.