- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

LONDON A senior British official yesterday endorsed the Bush administration's law-enforcement efforts against terror and pledged to pursue similar tough measures in Britain.

The official also said he found no evidence that the U.S. administration is sacrificing civil liberties in fighting terrorism at home.

"When you fight a war, you have to take very strong action. We have to commend the Americans for doing that," said John Stevens, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, better known as Scotland Yard. "There is a balance between people's civil liberties and keeping them safe. Our biggest liberty is the right to live."

Faced with the biggest rise in crime in nearly a decade, Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday promised the first major overhaul of the British criminal justice system in more than a century in an attempt to "balance" the rights of defendants with more rights for the victims of their offenses.

"It's a miscarriage of justice when delays and time-wasting deny victims justice for months on end," the prime minister said at an international crime conference. "It's perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today's system when the guilty walk away unpunished."

Mr. Stevens of Scotland Yard said in an interview that he was "very impressed by the way the FBI and the CIA do business" despite the recent criticism of the two agencies. He noted that Scotland Yard has an "incredibly strong relationship with the FBI" and has been "doing a lot of inquiries" on Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and other terrorist groups initiated by the bureau.

"I don't think there is any evidence that the Bush administration is sacrificing civil liberties," Mr. Stevens said.

Scotland Yard, which co-sponsored yesterday's conference with the FBI and New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has responsibilities resembling the combined portfolios of the FBI and the Secret Service, including the protection of the royal family and the government anywhere in the world.

Mr. Stevens, whose agency will be at the forefront of the reforms proposed by Mr. Blair, said the British criminal justice system is "extremely poor, overloaded and overstretched." He added that "everybody lawyers, administrators, the courts and the police" is in favor of the changes.

The government's plans include scrapping the centuries-old "double jeopardy" rule, which prevents those acquitted of crimes from being tried again for the same crime, as well as reforming the sentencing process to end the automatic early release for violent criminals and round-the-clock surveillance of the worst young offenders.

Although the British legal system has been a model for the rest of the world, Mr. Blair said it was time to "drag it from the 19th century into the 21st."

The prime minister's speech came a day after an Audit Commission report criticized the judicial system for delays and inefficiencies that cost an estimated $118 million and allowed some criminals to evade justice.

Mr. Blair has been under pressure from all political factions to crack down on crime, but Britain's civil rights groups have been more vocal than those in the United States.

Yesterday, the government was forced to put on hold plans to extend the prerogatives of central and local authorities to invade people's private lives on national security grounds and allow for a public debate on the issue.

"Mobile phone and Internet usage has grown enormously in the last five years," Home Secretary David Blunkett said in a statement. "If we get this right, we can get protection and privacy while tackling organized crime. I have no intention that we should be Big Brother."


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