Page last updated at 14:12 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Q&A: Freezing terror assets

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

What has the UK Supreme Court said about terror assets?

The British government operates a system of freezing the assets of terrorism suspects. It's directly linked to two international lists of alleged supporters of terrorism which are administered by the United Nations. The Supreme Court has ruled the British end of the system unlawful and told the government it has a month to sort it out.

What's the practical effect?

It's embarrassing for the government but the Treasury has been given a month to legislate. The freezing orders against the men remain in force to give the government time to create a system that Parliament supports. There are about 150 people who cold be theoretically affected by the ruling - 40 of them live in the UK or have bank accounts in the country.

So it doesn't mean that the government can't freeze assets?

Not at all. The Supreme Court simply said it's for Parliament to decide because the UK is a democracy. There is another system already in force which Parliament enacted in 2001. The justices said these older sanctions included proper safeguards - but the regime introduced via the UN lists were "draconian" because they lay outside the scope of Parliamentary scrutiny.

Why is it unlawful?

The rules on international law from the UN and a member state's obligations can be very complicated. But, put simply, ministers took the UN rules and turned them into a British system to seize assets without first asking Parliament if it approved.

Ministers can create lots of law and policy without asking MPs first, providing that the measures are in keeping with existing legislation.

The court said there were two fundamental problems with the system. The first part of the regime, the Terrorism (United Nations Measures) Order 2006 was unlawful because the Treasury had declared it could freeze people's assets on the basis of reasonable suspicion - something Parliament had not been asked about. The original UN system does not go as far as including people suspected of terrorism - only those with a proven link.

The second part of the system is the al-Qaeda and Taliban (United Nations Measures) order 2006. The justices said this was flawed because individuals could not challenge a decision to list them as a terrorist - there was no realistic right of appeal.

What do we know about the suspects?

All five have now been named. The first is Mohammed al-Ghabra, a 29-year-old British citizen who was born in Syria. According to the US Treasury, he has allegedly provided "material and logistical support to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations". He lives in east London and used to campaign publicly for the rights of Muslim prisoners. He has denied involvement in terrorism and was acquitted of a minor terrorism-related charge in 2004.

Another of the men, Hani el-Sayed Sabaei Youssef, also known as Dr Hani al-Seba'i, is director of the Al-Maqrizi Centre for Historical Studies in London.

He is an Egyptian Islamist dissident who sought asylum in the UK after saying he had been tortured by the security forces in his own country. That claim was rejected because the British security services believed he was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an organisation behind a number of attacks against ordinary people with a similar worldview to al-Qaeda.

His anonymity was lifted because he is a frequent contributor to the al-Jazeera television news channel and because the Egyptian government already knows who he is.

What about the other three?

The final three are brothers. Two of them - Mohammed Jabar Ahmed and Mohammed Azmir Khan - are reported by the court to have left their addresses in London. They have not been in touch with their solicitors and there is a possibility they have left the UK.

The final man is Michael Marteen, formerly Mohammed Tunveer Ahmed. Little is known about his case other than he argued for anonymity out of fear of losing contact with his family and finding himself in the situation of being accused of something that he could not effectively challenge in the courts.

How were these men living?

According to the court, the conditions of an asset freezing order are onerous. The suspect is told by letter that they must declare all their assets and finances - and those of close family members where relevant.

The individual is allowed a maximum of £10 cash a week. If they spend that money, they need to provide receipts for everything. Mr Marteen's solicitors said their client believed he was subjected to "unprecedented levels of intrusion and control without end or review".

During the cases, the system became bogged down in a seemingly endless debate about what constituted an economic resource. The system is designed to stop people accessing anything which could be useful for terrorism. But in practice, there were lots of negotiations with the Treasury over very basic tasks.

One suspect wanted to use a car to go to the supermarket, a request that had to be dealt with by a minister. Some family members said they feared being prosecuted if they ran a chore for the controlled person because that could be considered an economic benefit.

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