By Alan Travis and Patrick Wintour | Europe’s human rights commissioner is to write to Gordon Brown this week warning him that the proposal to detain terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge is an “excessive” measure that will put Britain “way out of line” with the rest of Europe and will prove counter-productive.
The intervention from Europe’s human rights watchdog comes as the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, prepares to outline to Labour MPs tonight “concessions” designed to curb the scale of a backbench revolt a week on Wednesday, when the key vote is to be held.
Brown rang some potential rebels at the weekend. But his hopes of crafting a consensus will be undermined by the Council of Europe, and by the parliamentary joint select committee on human rights, which is expected to reject the compromise being touted by ministers. They have been privately suggesting that the detention powers would be triggered only in defined “grave exceptional circumstances”, such as multiple plots by terrorists.
Parliament would get to vote on the decision to use the detention powers within seven to 10 days of the decision to do so, and it would also require renewal by parliament every 30 days.
But the joint select committee is expected to agree tonight that it would be better for the government simply to derogate temporarily from relevant articles of the European convention on human rights if the country was under that level of attack.
In an attempt to lower the temperature, Brown will not attend tonight’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, even though it is the first since the Crewe and Nantwich byelection defeat.
The government’s claim that criminal suspects in Italy can be held for months without charge has also been dismissed by Italian parliamentary authorities. They have confirmed to Commons librarians that the maximum period of pre-charge detention under Italian law is four days.
Ministers have repeatedly cited the Italian “example” in an attempt to rubbish research by Liberty, the human rights organisation, showing that Britain’s existing 28-day limit is already longer than any comparable democracy.
In his letter to Brown, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner will say: “I am concerned by the British government’s suggestion to allow terrorism suspects to be detained for 42 days without charge.
“This would be way out of line with equivalent detention limits elsewhere in Europe. We need to be more restrictive with such measures. Keeping people detained for such long periods before prosecution is excessive and will prove counter-productive,” he says. “I would urge members of the parliament to carefully review the government’s proposal.”
He is mandated to foster human rights standards across the 47 members of the Council of Europe and could have a role in any case at the European court of human rights testing the legality of 42-day detention.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: “When the Council of Europe human rights commissioner has cause to intervene in Britain, we should all be truly ashamed. The commissioner has endorsed Liberty’s view that 28 days is already way out of line with the rest of Europe.”
She claimed the government had been quick to try to smear Liberty’s evidence but had produced none of its own: “In recent weeks they’ve even started whispering that Liberty will support some desperate 42-day rescue package. They’ve lost both the argument and the humility to admit it.”