July 30, 2007 / 12:46 AM / 12 years ago

Security hearings called "Kafkaesque"

LONDON (Reuters) - Terrorism suspects held under virtual house arrest in Britain suffer “Kafkaesque” treatment in special courts that review secret evidence against them, a committee of legislators said on Monday.

A prison guard in a file photo. Terrorism suspects held under virtual house arrest in Britain suffer "Kafkaesque" treatment in special courts that review secret evidence against them, a committee of legislators said on Monday. REUTERS/File

The committee’s report said “no right-minded person” would think the suspects had a fair hearing when they often had no idea of the case against them.

It likened the system to the Star Chamber, a secretive and oppressive English court abolished in 1641.

“This is a process that is offensive both to the basic principles of natural justice as we know it and to British ideas of fair play,” said Andrew Dinsmore, chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The law allows suspects who cannot be prosecuted in the courts to be held under a loose form of house arrest known as a “control order”. These are scrutinised in special tribunals.

The orders are used in cases where authorities have collected evidence using techniques such as phone taps that are not admissible in the courts.

They can also be used when foreign nationals suspected of terrorism cannot be deported because of the risk of torture in their home country.

Suspects are represented by lawyers who are given security clearance to see secret evidence from the intelligence services. The lawyers are not allowed to discuss the case with the suspect.

The committee said this put a suspect at the “enormous disadvantage of not knowing what is alleged against him”.

“After listening to the evidence of the Special Advocates, we found it hard not to reach for well-worn descriptions of it as Kafkaesque or like the Star Chamber,” the committee said.

STANDARD OF PROOF

The lawmakers said the standard of proof required in the hearings was low. The courts tend to “defer very readily” to assessments made by the security services.

The committee also poured cold water on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s proposal to give police more time to question suspects before they must charge them.

His predecessor Tony Blair suffered his first defeat in the House of Commons (lower house) two years ago when he attempted to extend the limit in the wake of the July 7, 2005, London bombings that killed 52 commuters.

Brown said this week that the limit needed to be extended because plots were growing increasingly complicated.

The committee said there was no proof that detectives needed extra time to gather evidence before charges were brought.

“As far as we’ve heard, there has not yet been a case where 28 days was inadequate,” Dinsmore said.

A Home Office (interior ministry) spokesman said the department welcomed the report and would consider the findings.

“The system of control orders balances the need to protect sensitive material, while according the individual a substantial amount of procedural justice,” he said.

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