UK human rights groups concerned about new anti-terrorism law

Marwan Sultan in London, Monday 12 Jan 2015

UK Prime Minister and his Security and Intelligence chiefs are set to discuss ways to protect the country from terror attack like those seen in France days ago

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders at a conference in the Old Granada TV Studios in Manchester, northern England January 8, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

British Prime Minister David Cameron is set to meet with chiefs of security and intelligence services on Monday to discuss whether further action is needed to defend Britain against terrorist attacks.

The meeting comes a day before the UK’s House of Lords starts its second reading of the controversial new terrorism draft laws amid growing calls for major amendments with the aim to guarantee protection of British nationals’  human rights.

Britain is feared to be a victim of terrorist attacks such as those which shocked France last week, killing 17.

Cameron’s meeting with heads of security services comes after he joined French President Francois Hollande and world leaders for a rally in Paris to remember the victims. 

In a television interview, Cameron said it was necessary to "ask ourselves how we would respond to this sort of situation" in the UK.

"We've spent a lot of time in the past looking at how we would respond to this kind of marauding firearms attack by people who want to martyr themselves," he added.

In August of last year, the UK’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre and the Security Service (MI5) raised the terror threat level from “substantial,” meaning an attack is a strong possibility to “severe,” meaning that an attack is highly likely.

This step was taken due to threats from militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

The level can change at any time as different information becomes available to security agents.

"In a free country, there's never any way you can guarantee against an attack and the damage an attack can do,” Cameron said

However, he added "What we do have in Britain is brilliant security and intelligence services, very strong counter-terrorism policing, and a way of coordinating the work that they do with special forces and others to make sure that when these things happen, we respond in the best way we possibly can.”

Peers will take part in general debate on all aspects of the Counter terrorism and Security Bill which creates a new power for police to seize passports temporarily from individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism, to stop suspected extremists travelling abroad to fight alongside militant extremist groups, and deny any British suspect the right to return from abroad.

The Parliament’s Human Rights watchdog publicly expressed its concerns about the bill's articles on plans to block UK terrorist suspects returning to the UK.

These concerns echo warnings made by David Anderson, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation that such plan would be illegal and could possibly be defeated in courts.

The Parliament’s Joint Human Rights Committee is concerned that confiscating passports and blocking return from abroad “would violate the human rights of British nationals even if it were enforced on a temporary basis.”

"We are satisfied that in some areas there are gaps in the government's counter terrorism powers but some of the powers proposed in this bill require extra safeguards – so that they are not used unreasonably, and to permit individuals affected to challenge them where there are grounds to do so,” the Committee said in a report on the bill.

The British security services strongly believe hundreds of young British Muslims, primarily males, have joined militant groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and The al-Nusra Front, (Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria. Counter terrorism bodies say some of them have already come back and might be working on recruiting others to travel abroad to get involved in terror activities.

The Joint Human Rights Committee has also called for universities to be removed from a list of institutions required to counter radicalisation.

According to the new counter terrorism draft laws, other bodies, including Mosques and schools, will have a duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. If they do not cooperate with the security service, they might do so by a court order. 

Although the bill enables what the Home Office called safeguards, including the creation of a “Privacy and Civil Liberties Board” to support the work of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, human rights groups argue it is not enough to stop possible violation of civil liberties.

The bill was first introduced to the House of Commons on 23 November last year and passed through three readings with some amendments before it was sent to the House of Lords, where the government hinted it may make changes to guarantee majority when it is introduced to final vote.

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