LONDON (Reuters) - The government extended 28-day detention without trial for terrorism suspects for six months on Thursday but said both coalition parties want to reduce that limit, which is fiercely opposed by civil libertarians.
“The government has today laid an order to renew the existing 28-day maximum period of pre-charge detention for a time-limited period of six months,” Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement.
The 28-day detention measure must be renewed annually or it expires.
“It is vital that we support the police and other agencies in their work to keep us safe from terrorism ... At the same time ... we are also committed to safeguarding the rights and liberties of the public,” May said.
She said pre-charge detention would be included in a review of counter-terrorism legislation ordered by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The review is due to report to parliament in the autumn.
“Both parties in the coalition are clear that the 28-day maximum period should be a temporary measure and one that we will be looking to reduce over time,” May said.
Civil rights group Liberty urged the coalition to reduce the 28-day ceiling and called for the scrapping of “control orders,” a type of house arrest which has formed a central plank of Britain’s counter-terrorism measures in recent years.
“The coalition has bound itself together with the language of civil liberties. Now it must reduce the longest pre-charge detention period of any Western democracy,” said Liberty Director Shami Chakrabarti.
The previous Labour government was dogged by controversy over both pre-trial detention for terrorism suspects and control orders.
After suicide bombers killed 52 people on London’s transport networks in July 2005, then Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed for an increase in the pre-charge detention period for terrorism suspects to 90 days from 14, saying the security services needed more time to question suspects.
Labour MPs rebelled, dealing Blair the first House of Commons defeat of his premiership and parliament settled on a compromise 28 days.
When Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007 he tried again to extend the pre-charge detention period in terrorism cases to 42 days, but suffered a resounding defeat in the House of Lords.
Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems, in opposition, criticised Labour’s plans to extend pre-charge detention.
The Lib Dems, who are particularly strong on civil liberties, called in their May 6 election manifesto for the scrapping of control orders and for pre-charge detention to be limited to 14 days.
Liberty said no one had been held for more than 14 days without charge in Britain since Labour dropped its plan to raise the ceiling in October 2008.
Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Steve Addison