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Britain's Brown faces key leadership test over plans to toughen UK's terrorism laws

Britain's Brown faces key leadership test over plans to toughen UK's terrorism laws

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown put his dented leadership to the test Tuesday with plans to toughen terrorism laws amid bitter opposition from libertarians, lawmakers and even law enforcement officials, who claim his proposals are draconian and unnecessary.
Brown is seeking to greatly increase the number of days Britain's police can detain suspected terrorists before charges must be made against them _ a difficult task that led to a humiliating parliamentary defeat for his successor Tony Blair.
The British leader aims to pass new laws increasing the custody limit from 28 to 42 days _ or six weeks. Police chiefs and some victims of terrorism back the move, but the plans do not appear to have won widespread public support.
Brown insists it is vital to legislate now for a possible future catastrophe, rather than in the confused aftermath of a major terrorist attack on Britain.
Steering the contentious laws through Parliament could help restore Brown's leadership credentials.
But a knife-edge vote on Wednesday could equally deliver a humbling defeat to Brown and raise new grumbling over recent policy reversals and failures in municipal elections.
"It will be a very, very tight vote," Home Office Minister Tony McNulty told British Broadcasting Corp. radio on Tuesday. Foreign Secretary David Miliband has been recalled from a Middle East tour to cast his vote.
Fierce debate has stirred over the issue; some campaigners accuse Brown of undermining rights to liberty won centuries ago.
"Voting in favor of this bill would prove that through terrorism you can actually force your enemies to abandon the values which underpin democracy," said Tom Porteous, a director of civil liberties group Human Rights Watch.
Brown's spokesman Michael Ellam claimed Tuesday that opponents of the plans favor alternatives that could provide a propaganda boon for terrorists _ such as declaring a state of emergency after simultaneous attacks.
Even Britain's domestic spy agency, MI5, has made a rare foray into the public realm over the issue.
Director General Jonathan Evans posted a message on the agency's Web site on Monday to dismiss claims from both sides that the organization supports their arguments. He insisted that MI5, which is strictly politically neutral, has no view on the issue.
But he acknowledged terror plots being hatched against Britain are increasingly complex.
Brown said that means his plans are crucial _ to give police more time to crack encrypted computers, chase leads across the globe and map out sprawling terrorist networks.
"It is important to understand that the terrorist threat today is radically different from that faced in the past," he wrote to Labour Party lawmakers, seeking to win over an estimated 50 rebels in his ranks.
Brown compared an Irish Republican terrorism case in 2001 _ when police seized one computer _ to a 2004 plot hatched by Islamic extremists to bomb U.S. financial targets and luxury London hotels. In the more recent case, officers seized 270 computers and made inquiries in seven countries.
Police chiefs said in a joint statement that without more time to investigate, officers could "fail to pick up a vital piece of evidence or gain intelligence which could allow us to stop an attack."
Some victims and survivors of terrorist attacks also back Brown.
Graham Foulkes, whose 22-year-old son, David, was killed in the July 7, 2005, bombing attack on London's transport network, said current police powers are inadequate.
But few understand how Brown has arrived at a 42-day limit.
Blair attempted to win police a 90-day limit in 2005, but was defeated and forced to accept the current 28-day regime.
"There's never been a reason given for arriving precisely at the number 42," said Jago Russell, a policy officer for the human rights group Liberty, who testified before a parliamentary committee on the plans.
Since new laws were passed in 2005, police have held six suspects up to the maximum limit of 28 days; three people were released without charge and a further three prosecuted.
Former chief government legal adviser Lord Goldsmith says detaining suspects for longer periods could strain relations with Britain's Muslim communities _ and choke the flow of information which police and intelligence officers rely on to investigate and interrupt attacks.


Updated : 2021-07-29 05:51 GMT+08:00