Compromise Ends British Standoff Over Anti-Terror Bill

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

London ( - British Prime Minister Tony Blair faced down an alliance of conservatives and liberals to pass a key plank of proposed anti-terror legislation Friday after a marathon legislative session that lasted more than 30 hours.

At issue was the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, a proposal to allow the U.K. government to keep terror suspects under house arrest without a full trial.

Members of Parliament in the elected House of Commons, where Blair's Labor Party has a majority, consistently approved the measures, but in the appointed House of Lords, a bloc including the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties stalled the legislation Thursday and Friday by tacking on amendments.

Foremost among the changes the Lords requested was a sunset clause that would cause the law to expire after one year. Blair initially argued that acceptance of such an amendment would show weakness to terrorists, but he changed course and later promised to allow lawmakers to review the bill within a year.

Both Blair and Conservative Party leader Michael Howard claimed victory after the bill passed both houses late Friday. Howard called the prime minister "arrogant" and said that Blair's promise, which does not have the force of law, is a sunset clause in everything but name.

"Everyone agrees that terrorism is a real threat to our country. The point of difference has always been how we most effectively tackle it," Howard said.

During earlier debate, the government minister behind the bill, Home Secretary Charles Clarke, accused the opposition parties of unreasonably rejecting compromise and attempting to score political points in advance of a widely expected May general election.

"It's been a stick in the mud response, simply trying to put heels in the sand and prevent the elected house carrying its proposals through," Clarke told the House of Commons.

"It is time for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the Lords to respect the considered view of the elected chamber," he said.

Under the British political system, the Lords have the power to amend the bill but not defeat it entirely, thereby creating a game of political ping-pong that lasted all day Thursday and continued throughout the night. As the Lords kept amending the bill and sending it back to the Commons, MPs in the lower house defeated the amendments and sent the bill back to the Lords.

MPs faced a deadline of Sunday before prior legislation under which foreign terror suspects are being held was to run out.

Also on Friday, five foreign terror suspects were released on bail from high-security prisons in London. Among them was Abu Qatada, a man often described as al Qaeda's "ambassador" in Europe.

By coincidence, Qatada was released on the one-year anniversary of the Madrid bombings which killed 191 people, and he is wanted in Spain for questioning in connection with that attack. Spanish authorities believe he was in close contact with several of the bomb plotters before his arrest in London in 2002, according to reports.

The suspects released Friday will be required to wear electronic monitoring devices and observe a curfew.

Forced changes

Blair's government was forced to change the law by a court ruling in December stating that the detentions without trial were contrary to Britain's Human Rights Act, the domestic version of European human rights law.

Conservatives called the measures too soft, and both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have objected to the elimination of some due process protections in the cases of the detainees.

"We believe terrorists should be brought to trial and put in prison, not wandering around with an electronic bracelet - the kind of thing which is routinely broken by conventional criminals every day," Howard told BBC radio Friday morning.

"The notion that a tag of this kind will be a serious inconvenience to an al Qaeda operative takes a great deal of swallowing," he said.

Under the current law, detainees have a right to appeal to the Special Immigration Appeal Commission, a panel of judges. But the standards of evidence are lower than in Britain's criminal courts, and the government is able to withhold evidence from the defendants in the interests of national security.

Opposition to the Prevention of Terrorism Bill created some unlikely bedfellows, from Conservative lords to Liberal members of Parliament, and Jesse Jackson even weighed in on the dispute.

"Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. Government has proved itself trustworthy enough to conduct democracy by secret intelligence," Jackson said in a statement released by the London-based civil rights group Liberty.

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