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 Liberty is on the line

Saturday December 18, 2004
The Guardian

It is of first importance for the rule of law in a democracy that the decisions of the highest court are accepted by both the executive and the legislature (Judges' verdict on terror laws provokes constitutional crisis, December 16).

The law lords' judgment, which will become a milestone in the long struggle for human rights, can be adhered to in a number of ways that respect the presumption of innocence and the right of every person to a fair trial. In Northern Ireland, for instance, there were the single-judge Diplock courts, and trials held in camera. Release under close surveillance is another option.

To permit indefinite detention, coupled with the isolation of the detained person from friends and family over years, is to destroy the very structure of human rights and justice we claim to defend.
Shirley Williams
House of Lords

If David Blunkett hadn't resigned on Wednesday, would he have had to resign on Thursday when the law lords savaged his anti-terrorism legislation?

Their judgment is his true legacy - this story is no longer about visas and affairs, but about a Labour home secretary who attacks perhaps the most basic tenet of British law and of democracy itself, habeas corpus - the right of the individual not to be detained without charge or trial.

Lord Bingham, in his judgment, reminds us that "the appellants were able to draw on the long libertarian tradition of English law dating back to Chapter 39 of Magna Carta 1215, giving effect in the ancient remedy of habeas corpus". This is a fundamental keystone of democracy and the British legal tradition. The significance of this ruling is that the government is still subject to the law of the land - that this is still, for the moment, a state based on the rule of law and not the arbitrary rule of government.
Jane Mayes
Geoffrey Clapp solicitors

I am deeply disturbed by the apparent determination of the Home Office not to bow to the ruling of the highest court and to take no immediate action to remedy the illegal detention by either releasing the detainees or charging and bringing them to trial.

The concept of indefinite detention without trial is abhorrent, inhumane and contrary to a fundamental principle underlying the rule of law which has been established since the great landmark cases of the 18th century. If it is ever justified, it can only be when there is a genuine national emergency where the threat is to the very life of the nation.

I do not underestimate the power of terrorists to kill and destroy, but the judges were plainly correct to say that there was then no national emergency which could, in law, justify opting out of article 5 of the European convention on human rights. The act was part of a politics of fear which is damaging the US and must not be allowed to damage us here in the UK.

As the judges said, our responses to the terrorist threats we face must be proportionate. Our civil liberties, which David Blunkett took so lightly, took centuries to establish and we must be utterly vigilant against current attempts to diminish them.

If the Home Office does not either charge or release the detainees, a most serious constitutional crisis must result from the precedent of defiance thus created.
(Prof) John Rear
University of Northumbria

The British government's refusal to accept the law lords' strong and unequivocal ruling on indefinite detention without trial speaks volumes about Tony Blair and Jack Straw. In their eagerness to emulate the aggressive and authoritarian practices of George Bush, Blair and Straw reject the very traditions that have long defined and sustained the common law, and not just in Britain. What sort of message will this send to the Ukrainians, Iraqis, Uzbeks and Burmese?
Michael Byers
University of British Columbia