- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

LONDON — The British government said yesterday it is considering giving courts the power to try terrorist suspects in secret, without juries. The proposals drew immediate condemnation from civil liberties groups.

Home Secretary David Blunkett published a discussion paper outlining changes to existing antiterrorist laws. They include secret trials in which judges and lawyers would be cleared beforehand by the intelligence services.

There is also a proposal to allow judges to convict defendants on a lower standard of proof than in normal criminal trials, where guilt must be proven “beyond reasonable doubt.” The proposal would allow judges to convict if they thought “on a balance of probabilities” a defendant was guilty.

The civil rights group Liberty said the plans were “wholly unacceptable.”

“Simply introducing more laws, greater powers and stiffer penalties will go a long way to undermining British justice and will not make our country any safer,” said campaigns director Mark Littlewood.

Mr. Blunkett said the threat of suicide terrorist attacks made it necessary to debate ways to “deal with these delicate issues of proportionality and human rights on the one hand and evidential base and the threshold of evidence on the other.”

Speaking to Britain’s Press Association news agency Sunday during a visit to India, he said authorities needed the power to act on intelligence information while protecting their sources.

Mr. Blunkett said he hoped to have new legislation in place by the next national election, which must be held by mid-2006.

The proposals are similar to measures already in place for foreign terrorist suspects. Under legislation passed after the September 11 attacks in the United States, foreign suspects may be detained indefinitely without charge or trial if authorities can prove they have “reasonable grounds to suspect” the detainees have links to terrorism.

Sixteen persons have been detained under the legislation, which applies only to suspects who are not British citizens and whose lives would be endangered if they were deported. Two have left Britain; the others are being held at high-security jails. So far, legal challenges to their detention have failed.

Some lawyers were critical of Mr. Blunkett’s plans. Baroness Helena Kennedy, an attorney and Labor Party peer, said Mr. Blunkett was “a shameless authoritarian.”

“I think we can be confident that many of his colleagues in the Cabinet, including particularly the attorney general, will sit on this, because it really is an affront to the rule of law,” Mrs. Kennedy told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

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