New blow for Home Office as judge quashes six terror orders
System 'incompatible with human rights'
Alan Travis and Audrey Gillan
Thursday June 29, 2006
A high court judge last night demolished a central plank of the government's anti-terror policy when he quashed "control orders" on six suspected terrorists, saying the home secretary "had no power to make them under human rights law".
John Reid launched a furious counter-attack last night, saying he "strongly disagreed" with the ruling by Mr Justice Sullivan, which overturns nearly half the 14 control orders currently in force. He will try to overturn it in the court of appeal next month. Mr Reid said the control order system was needed to deal with international terror suspects who could not be deported on human rights grounds to countries where there was risk of torture.
"The obligations contained in control orders are necessary to protect the public and proportionate to the threat that these individuals pose," he insisted.
But Mr Justice Sullivan had declared that the system of control orders, which places the terror suspects under "draconian" restrictions just short of house arrest for up to 12 months, was incompatible with the European human rights convention. The decision, if upheld by the appeal court, will leave a big hole in the government's anti-terror policy as ministers will be left with no powers to detain terror suspects whom they are not able to prosecute in an open criminal court.
Lord Carlile, the government's terror law watchdog, revealed last night that the Home Office is already working behind the scenes on a lighter-touch version of control orders, with shorter curfews and less restrictive rules on visitors that they hope will not fall foul of the courts.
But this latest clash over human rights between the government and the senior judiciary is a sharp illustration that the crisis facing the Home Office is not over yet. Tony Blair warned the judges again yesterday that he is prepared to legislate to overturn their rulings if necessary.
Mr Justice Sullivan said the home secretary had acted illegally when he used control orders to lock up six Middle Eastern men for 18 hours a day in one-bedroom flats across the country after failing to bring charges under the Terrorism Act.
He told the government it had no power to make the orders. Each of the orders was a legal "nullity".
The men had been deprived of their liberty and freedom in contravention of article 5 of the European convention on human rights.
Mr Justice Sullivan severely criticised the home secretary for first claiming to international human rights monitors that the courts could quash control orders, but then a year later telling the courts that it would be "inappropriate" to quash them.
This change in position was "more than unfortunate" and had "the potential to undermine the government, to undermine confidence in public administration and its integrity". It is the second time in three months that Mr Justice Sullivan has criticised the orders. In April he overturned a seventh control order on a British terror suspect known only as "S", calling it an "affront to justice".
Six men, five of them Iraqi, and one of either Iraqi or Iranian origin, were arrested under anti-terrorism legislation in October last year and released without charge. The six were then held under immigration laws before being placed under control orders.
Their lives were "for all intents and purposes under the control of the Home Office" and they were not able to "lead a normal life". The men were under curfew for 18 hours a day enforced by an electronic tag and were not allowed to attend any public meetings. The home secretary decided which mosque they could attend.
Mr Justice Sullivan said: "The freedom to meet any person of one's choice by prior arrangement is significant. As is the freedom to attend any temple, mosque, church as whatever you choose." He went on: "I am left in no doubt whatsoever that the cumulative effect of the order has been to deprive to respondents of their liberty, in breach of article 5. I do not consider that this is a borderline case." The judge said he had taken into account the importance of the needs of protecting the public from acts of terrorism, but "human rights or international law must not be infringed or compromised".
Control orders were introduced in February last year after the judges declared the Belmarsh regime of indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects to be discriminatory and incompatible with human rights law.
Human rights groups welcomed the judge's ruling. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty said control orders were a "substitute long-term punishment based on secret intelligence for charges, evidence and proof. This kind of injustice is counter-productive in fighting terrorism".
Amnesty International said the judgment showed Mr Reid could not deprive people of their liberty without charge or trial: "If people are suspected of having committed a crime, they should be charged and put on trial - not arbitrarily detained."