Britain’s 42-day detention: draconian or necessary?

June 12, 2008

Gordon BrownSo Prime Minister Gordon Brown has succeeded — by the skin of his teeth — in getting Britain’s House of Commons to approve new police counter-terrorism powers that were condemned by civil liberties groups, a former prime minister, a U.N. human rights investigator and several dozen of Brown’s own Labour MPs. The Guardian newspaper writes about ‘Liberty, security and an anxiety over lost rights’.

And even the government admits the power to hold terrorism suspects for up to 42 days before charging or releasing them has never been needed until now: it wants it as an insurance policy against future attacks or plots in which the police may need more than the 28 days they now have in order to investigate tangled international links, false identities and masses of encrypted computer files.

So what’s going on? The bald figures suggest Britain is way out of step with other democracies. The six weeks allowed under the bill for initial questioning of terrorism suspects compares with one day in Canada, two in the United States, Germany, South Africa and New Zealand, five in Spain and 12 in Australia.

But the bald figures don’t tell the whole story. Police in most European countries, for example, hand cases over to a judge or prosecutor after the first few days and the suspect may wait in jail for months or years while the investigation proceeds. Britain can also plausibly argue, on the basis of the number of plots intercepted in the past few years, that it is more threatened than most countries by al Qaeda-inspired militants.

Opinion polls suggest the public backs Brown on this issue, although his overall popularity rating is dire. And with the House of Lords likely to oppose the bill and send it back for re-consideration by the lower chamber, Brown is far from being out of the woods.

Expect more debate in coming months on possible alternative means of tackling terrorism — particularly on whether to let British police, like their counterparts nearly everywhere else, use evidence from tapping suspects’ phones as ammunition to prosecute them in court.

Despite the embarrassment caused this week when a senior security official left top-secret intelligence documents on a train, the British authorities have a strong record in countering terrorism. Since 2004 the country has seen at least one major plot each year, and many smaller ones. Only one succeeded: the July 2005 London suicide attacks that killed 52 people. So far, 2008 has been a quieter year — but the emergence of any major new threat could once again shift the goalposts in the security debate.


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This is not a good day for democracy, human rights or our reputation within the EU. The evidence supporting the motion has been weak and the hidden agenda behind the urgency to pass this legislation is unsettling. This debacle also shows that Labour is out of control and clueless about causal issues, preferring to verge on bribery to address the symptoms of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, as advised by questionable viewpoints in MI5, MI6 and the CIA. The public should be concerned about the state’s intent, it appears that CCTV is the tip of the ice-berg, for once the Tory’s are well positioned to gain the moral highground.

Posted by Stuart Crawford-Browne | Report as abusive

I believe that 42 days is perfectly fine to hold terror suspects. At least after 42 days the prisoner is either charged or released.

If you look at the other countries that only have 1 or 2 days detention then hand it over to the judge or prosecutor the prisoner can be held indefinately.

I think that this is more fair on the Prisoner as they know if they are not charged within that time then they will be released.

However, no compensation should be given to these prisoners if they are cleared as they have come under the suspicion of the Security Services as they may have had links to terrorists or terrorism, but nothing was found.

Posted by Norman Small | Report as abusive

Forty-two days or 42 minutes, Mr. & Mrs. Reader, this kind of thing flies directly in the face of the letter and spirit of the Magna Carta…just as the actions of Messrs. Bush, McCain & Graham et al fly in the face of the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, to wit:

“The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Article I, Section 9, Clause 2

I don’t recall any “Cases of Rebellion or Invasion”, do you? Certainly, September 11, 2001, cannot be called an “invasion” except by some far stretch of somebody’s imagination–perhaps that of Messrs. Bush, McCain & Graham et al.

Here is what the Magna Carta has to say:

“No freeman is to be taken or imprisoned or disseised of his free tenement or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go against such a man or send against him save by lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land. To no-one will we sell or deny of delay right or justice.”

What follows is the problem that I see with a government making end runs around the Magna Carta or “this Constitution for the United States of America”.

Making such end runs simply tells our Eastern enemies that we Americans can stoop just as low as they do (by denying their operatives the basic privilege of the writ of habeas corpus while detained indefinitely by our government). I’m willing to make a very heavy bet that this is exactly what was on the mind of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts in crime, terror and horror.

That is, OBL wasn’t just after the Twin Towers or the Pentagon or (most likely) the White House. He was intent upon disrupting Western adherence to the rule of law. This evil Easterner is still intent on that.

Luckily, at least 5 of 9 judges on the U.S. Supreme Court can see the big picture…even if Messrs. Bush, McCain & Graham et al are so shortsighted as not to see it.

Perhaps the British will see the big picture too…sooner than later.

What has happened in the United States (and perhaps in Great Britain as well) over the past seven years simply confirms for me how the highest elected and appointed officials can be so quickly and easily seduced by the almost absolute power that comes with “wartime governing”.

Frankly, I think that the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan has been artificially extended for one purpose and one purpose only. That purpose has been to keep (for a few elected and appointed officials) the “wartime power” that congress so foolishly handed over to them in 2001 and 2002 during the rush to war that was so brazenly encouraged by these selfsame officials–who were so quickly and easily corrupted by their craving for personal power.

There is nothing but sadness in my heart for our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen; their Families; and their Survivors who have sacrificed so much during the time that the aforementioned war has been artificially extended for reasons that make little if any strategic, operational or tactical sense to me as a Soldier myself.

OK Jack

Posted by OK Jack | Report as abusive

When giving up freedom for security, you free nothing, and secure nothing.
Already people protesting about land mines have been arrested under the prevention of terrorism, and they were doing nothing more lethal than holding a placard.
When you give the Police huge powers, but insist they will use them only sparingly, it never happens, they always use them to the maximum ability, always.

Posted by Louis | Report as abusive