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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 November, 2004, 13:20 GMT
UK urged to review terrorism laws
Belmarsh protest sign
There have been protests against detention without trial
The UK government has been urged to review its policy of detaining foreign terror suspects without trial, by the United Nations Committee on Torture.

It expressed concern at conditions in Belmarsh prison, south London, where suspects have been held indefinitely under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act.

The committee called for alternatives to internment to be urgently examined.

The request followed a report to the committee from the UK on its activities - its first for six years.

The committee also said the results of inquiries into the alleged misconduct of UK soldiers during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan should be published.

'Limited acceptance'

Over the past two weeks, the committee has been quizzing UK officials on compliance with the 20-year-old Convention Against Torture.

Under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA), the home secretary can indefinitely detain, without charge, a foreign terrorist suspect
Seventeen men are being held under the anti-terror measures - mostly at Belmarsh
A team of psychologists have claimed eight men detained in Belmarsh without charge are suffering a deterioration in mental health
New anti-terror laws would also see the introduction of trials without jury and the use of phone-tap evidence

Members expressed concern at the "limited acceptance of the applicability of the convention to the actions of its forces abroad".

They pointed out that while troops must follow UK law, which outlaws torture, they are not necessarily bound by the UN convention.

More than 150 cases of alleged mistreatment by UK forces of Iraqis are currently being investigated.

These range from traffic accidents to people caught in crossfire.

At an earlier hearing, Martin Howard, a senior Ministry of Defence official, told the committee 17 of these cases could be categorised as alleging inhumane or degrading treatment or torture.

Signatories to the UN convention on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are required to make regular submissions such as the UK's.

As well as anti-terrorism policy, committee members also looked at the issue of evidence gained though torture.

'Useless evidence'

They want a formal commitment that the UK will not rely on evidence gained when torture is suspected.

Civil rights group Liberty spokesman Barry Hugill said he hope the British government would now "be honest about they are doing" in accepting evidence obtained under torture.

Evidence obtained under torture was "useless because when people are tortured they will - for very obvious reasons - say absolutely anything", he said.

Mr Hugill said foreign nationals suspected of terrorism in the UK "should be treated in the same way as a British national suspected of terrorism here".

They should be arrested, charged, allowed legal representation in court and be put before a judge and jury to decide if they are guilty, he said.

"What is unacceptable is that people are simply picked up in dawn raids, put in prison and left there for three years and potentially for life," Mr Hugill said.

Mental torture

The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 allows Home Secretary David Blunkett to detain without trial foreign nationals he suspects of terrorism.

But there has been widespread condemnation by human rights activists, who say the practice is akin to mental torture.

Of the 17 Islamist terrorist suspects detained under the law, 11 remain in custody.

In September, an Algerian known as D was released from Woodhill jail, near Milton Keynes, after nearly three years.

He had been held under the anti-terror laws but was freed when Mr Blunkett said the evidence no longer justified detention.

Government lawyers have argued before the committee that its policy of holding foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities is justified because there is an emergency threatening the life of the nation.

Improvement needed

Amnesty International UK spokesman Neil Durkin said the human fights group "unequivocally welcomed" the committee's report.

"We think there needs to be a pretty urgent improvement in the UK government's policy towards detention."

Mr Durkin said that since the government's last submission to the committee about six years ago there had been "several worrying developments".

These included the Court of Appeal decision in August allowing the use of evidence obtained through torture so long as the UK itself neither supported nor participated in torture.

"This was extremely worrying. Amnesty wants to see the UK government making a formal undertaking that they will not rely on any torture evidence."

Amnesty has also argued that the detention of terror suspects in Belmarsh was "completely incompatible" with human rights standards and that long-term indefinite detention was "tantamount to a form of mental cruelty," Mr Durkin added.

Details of the UN's concerns

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