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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 18:23 GMT
Caution urged over terror courts
Belmarsh Prison
Belmarsh detainees: Changes expected soon
The UK's top prosecutor has urged caution over introducing anti-terrorism courts without juries.

Director of Public Prosecutions Ken MacDonald QC warned against a repeat of miscarriages of justice linked to terror investigations in the 1970s.

He said British Muslims must not get the idea that terrorism laws were aimed at "sweeping through communities".

The measure is being floated as a possible solution to the controversial detention of foreign terror suspects.

Mr MacDonald's comments came as he addressed members of the Commons Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

He said his team at the Crown Prosecution Service were acutely aware of the concerns surrounding the use of anti-terrorism powers since the 11 September attacks.

Within months of taking the post in November 2003 he said he had met with senior Muslim figures to try and allay their concerns, he told MPs.

Reforms expected

The most controversial element of the anti-terror laws since 2001 has been the detention without trial of a dozen suspects, mostly at Belmarsh Prison.

Ken Macdonald
Ken MacDonald: 'No return' to miscarriages of justice
The home secretary is expected to shortly reveal his proposed reforms to that law after the House of Lords said the detention of nine men was wrong and ordered a rethink.

One possibility, floated by former home secretary David Blunkett, is the introduction of specialist anti-terrorism courts which could sit without juries and hear evidence from the security services. The courts would include security-vetted lawyers.

But Mr MacDonald urged caution over such courts.

"I have said in the past that it's important not to throw the baby out with the bath water," Mr MacDonald told committee members.

"I'm not sure that open liberal societies protect themselves against terrorism by becoming closed and illiberal.
If people get the idea that these powers are to conduct sweeps through communities, that would be hugely undermining
Ken MacDonald
"On a pragmatic point of view, one of the best protections against miscarriages of justice is due process.

"What I have done in the past is caution against changes that are not contemplated without great care and cool heads."

Mr MacDonald said that any anti-terrorism laws had to properly balance the rights of the accused with the need for crime prevention.

A crucial element was not to forget the lessons of the miscarriages of justice following major terrorist attacks in the 1970s, he said, referring to the jailing of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, all falsely convicted of being IRA members.

He said the criminal justice system had substantially changed since those days to prevent unfair treatment of minorities. The CPS now had a specialist team of top lawyers solely handling terrorism cases, he said.

Large numbers of his prosecutors would shortly be given specialist training on Muslims and Islam in Britain, organised by the Muslim Council of Britain.

Terrorism offences

Nick Hardwick, chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, said his investigators would be looking at all complaints relating to arrests under the Terrorism Act.

"The evidence we have from public opinion surveys [is that] Asian people have the least confidence in the police and the least confidence that their complaints will be dealt with seriously," he told MPs.

But Mr MacDonald said figures for terrorism-related arrests had to be seen in context rather than used to suggest the authorities were treating entire communities as suspects.

Of the 460 arrests under the Terrorism Act since 9/11, 54 people had been charged with terrorism offences and a further 236 with other crimes with a potential terrorism element. These included credit card fraud, identity forgery and conspiracy. The number of arrests had fallen from 270 in 2003 to 165 in 2004.

Some 70 prosecutions were still to come before the courts which in time would provide a more rounded view, he stressed.

"If people get the idea that these powers are to conduct sweeps through communities, that would be hugely undermining," said MacDonald.


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