Terror law in disarray after judge's ruling

MINISTERS may now "hesitate" before using anti-terrorist powers against suspected extremists after a court ruling against control orders, a security watchdog said last night.

Lord Carlile, the government's independent assessor of terrorism laws, gave his view after a High Court judge in London ruled that ministers' powers to put accused terrorists under house arrest contravene human rights laws.

The Home Office has vowed to appeal against the ruling on control orders, which would tear a hole in the government's anti-terrorism legislation if upheld by a higher court.

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The case concerns the orders currently imposed by ministers on a dozen men, British nationals and foreign citizens, whom the security services assess to pose a threat to the UK.

The orders are subject to limited judicial oversight and impose strict curbs on recipients, confining them to their homes, denying them access to phones or computers and obliging them to contact the authorities several times a day.

One of the 12, a Briton identified only as MB, challenged the law giving ministers the power to impose the orders.

The court heard yesterday that MI5, the Security Service, believes that MB is linked to international terrorists. Reports have suggested he was detained more than once at British airports trying to travel to Iraq to join insurgent forces there. His lawyer insists he was on his way to Syria for a peaceful holiday.

Mr Justice Sullivan yesterday ruled that the Home Office had not given MB a proper right to a legal challenge against his control order.

The limited judicial oversight the government allows is only a "thin veneer of legality", the judge said, ruling that the control orders system breaches the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is enshrined in Britain's Human Rights Act.

Mudassar Arani, the lawyer for MB, said the ruling was a "slap across the face" for the government and challenged ministers to give her client an open trial, where any evidence against him would be heard in public.

Human rights groups, including Liberty and Amnesty International, also hailed the court ruling and insisted that MB and the other "controlees" must be tried in public. But the Home Office last night vowed to challenge Mr Justice Sullivan's ruling and insisted that as the evidence against the "controlees" comes from the intelligence services, they cannot have open trials.

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"The government believes that control orders are the best way of addressing the continuing threat posed by suspected terrorists who cannot currently be prosecuted or, in respect of foreign nationals, removed from the UK," a Home Office spokesman said.

While yesterday's judgment does not mean that any of the existing control orders will be lifted, Lord Carlile last night said that the dispute over the law giving ministers control powers could have an effect on the use of those powers in future.

"A badly-worded law could have unintended consequences - the government may have to hesitate before making [control] orders," Lord Carlile told BBC Radio Four. If the government's appeal fails, Lord Carlile said, ministers will have to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Since that act was passed, the government has been defeated in the Commons on a separate move to allow police to detain terrorist suspects without charge for up to 90 days.

In that political environment, opposition parties warn, any attempt to amend the control orders legislation could be difficult.

"If this judicial judgment cannot be overturned, we will find that, yet again, the government's incompetence has put the liberty and safety of our citizens at risk," said David Davis, the Conservative home affairs spokesman.