Britain’s government announced Wednesday that it was overturning some of their unpopular anti-terrorism laws. The measures, put in place after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were widely thought to be some of the toughest in the West.
A review published by British Home Secretary Theresa May acknowledged that the laws had been “out of step with other Western democracies.”
As a part of the changes, the amount of time a suspect can be detained without being charged was reduced from 28 days to 14 days. In comparison, suspects in the US can only be held for seven days.
May also restricted the ability of local police to use spying powers for minor offenses, including littering or pet owners allowing their dogs to soil sidewalks.
One of the most controversial powers, known as control orders, was renamed as “terrorism prevention and investigation measures,” but largely left in place.
Control orders were created after a court ruled in 2004 that terrorism suspects could not be detained without being charged. The rules imposed electronic tagging and a 16-hour curfew.
Under the new rules, suspects will only be required to stay in their homes for 10 hours a night, and will still have to wear an electronic anklet. Suspects will be denied mobile internet access, but allowed restricted access to websites while at home.
Suspects will have to be charged or freed after two years.
“For the foreseeable future, there are very likely to be a small number of people who pose a real threat to our country but who cannot be successfully prosecuted or deported,” May told the House of Commons.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, said Wednesday that control orders had been “rebranded, if in a slightly lower-fat form.”
“As before, the innocent may be punished without a fair hearing and the guilty will escape the full force of criminal law. This leaves a familiar bitter taste,” she said.
The changes in British law came as US lawmakers quietly prepared to renew controversial provisions of the Bush administration’s USA Patriot Act that are due to expire this year.
When the act was first signed into law, Congress put in some “sunset” provisions to quiet the concerns of civil libertarians, but they were ignored by successive extensions. Unfortunately, those concerns proved to be well founded, and a 2008 Justice Department report confirmed that the FBI regularly abused their ability to obtain personal records of Americans without a warrant.
As senator, Barack Obama promised to support reforming the Patriot Act, but voted in favor of extending it in 2005 and 2008. Similarly, he signed last year’s extension into law with little fanfare.
US law enforcement officials had consistently argued that restricting their blanket authority to conduct warrantless searches would harm national security.