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 Government prepares to unveil changes to anti-terror laws

Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
Monday January 17, 2005
The Guardian

The government is preparing to announce next week the changes it plans to make to its anti-terror laws in the wake of a law lords ruling that they are unlawful, the Guardian has learned.

The move comes as another of the barristers appointed by the attorney general as "special advocates" to represent detainees' interests quits in protest at the government's failure to act so far.

Rick Scannell's resignation, which takes effect today, follows that of Ian Macdonald QC, one of the most senior special advocates, who attacked the anti-terror laws as "odious" when he stepped down last month.

The 12 detainees, most of whom are in Belmarsh prison in south-east London, are held under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ACSA), rushed through by the government after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US. It allows foreign nationals to be detained indefinitely without charge or trial, on suspicion of being involved in international terrorism.

They may challenge their detention before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) but neither they nor their lawyers are allowed to see the secret evidence against them. That evidence can be seen only by the special advocate appointed to represent the detainee's interests, who may not discuss it with the detainee or his lawyers.

Mr Scannell is one of around 19 special advocates who were given security clearance. Mass resignations could threaten the survival of the system.

He said his resignation letter, dated today, would be on the desk of the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, today. "I thought I couldn't in good conscience act in a system which continued to test the lawfulness of the detention of these men in a context in which the House of Lords had declared the very provisions upon which the detentions were based to be incompatible with the detainees' human rights," he said.

Mr Scannell was abroad when the law lords delivered their judgment last month. He discovered on his return that the home secretary, Charles Clarke, had said parliamentary approval would be sought to renew the anti-terror laws when they came up for renewal in March and the men would not be released.

The barrister said he had hoped the government would reconsider. But the prime minister, Tony Blair, had taken the same stance in a radio interview this month.

Hearings before SIAC continued to be scheduled through January and February, and the government was trying to get bail rescinded in the one case in which SIAC had granted it.

Mr Scannell said in his resignation letter: "In light of the government's continued maintenance of detention under ACSA powers and the government's apparent determination to extend those powers I consider my continued participation in a system condemned by the House of Lords to be wholly untenable."

Mr Scannell is one of a group of special advocates who held a meeting last Thursday to discuss their response to the government's continued failure to act. The others are waiting for the government to announce its intentions before deciding whether to resign.

Shami Chakrabarti of the human rights organisation Liberty, said: "This further resignation is another blow for the completely discredited policy of detention without trial. The government has had long enough to respond to the House of Lords' unequivocal ruling."

"The detained men must be released or charged with a criminal offence immediately. The law should be changed to allow the use of intercept material in criminal trials."