Law lords rule against control orders

By staff

Law lords have ruled against the use of secret evidence in control order cases, presenting Alan Johnson with his first big test as home secretary.

The unanimous ruling does not quash control orders, but instead sends them back to the high court.

In a statement Mr Johnson said he found the judgement “extremely disappointing”, saying his job of protecting the public had just been made harder.

“Nevertheless, the government will continue to take all steps we can to manage the threat presented by terrorism,” he continued.

“All control orders will remain in force for the time being and we will continue to seek to uphold them in the courts. In the meantime we will consider this judgement and our options carefully.

“We introduced control orders to limit the risk posed by suspected terrorists whom we can neither prosecute nor deport. The government relies on sensitive intelligence material to support the imposition of a control order, which the courts have accepted would damage the public interest to disclose in open court.

“We take our obligations to human rights seriously and as such we have put strong measures in place to try to ensure that our reliance on sensitive material does not prejudice the right of individuals subject to control orders to a fair trial.”

The case comes as a controlee – who has now been subject to incarceration or control orders for seven-and-a-half years without trial – wrote a letter to Gordon Brown begging for release.

“I have lost my family, I have lost everything,” Mahmoud Abu Rideh wrote.

“Never can I see my family or my family see me again. Is this not torture I ask you Gordon Brown? If you fight the terrorists like this you make every Muslim a terrorist.”

The nine-judge panel decide controlees are entitled to an “irreducible minimum” of disclosure in order to satisfy article six of the Human Rights Act.

The government has argued that it all depends on the circumstances, and it is sometimes possible to have a fair hearing without any disclosure at all.

But controlees, civil liberties groups and some legal experts argued controlees must always have some idea of the case against them, whether by way of evidence or “gist”, in order to be able to challenge it.

“I can think of no better way for the prime minister to make a fresh start for his government than to abandon the cruel and counter-productive punishments without trial instituted by his predecessor,” Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said.

“This is also a great opportunity for the new home secretary to prove his commitment to human rights and fighting terrorism within the rule of law.”

Andrew Dismore, chairman of the joint committee on human rights, welcomed the ruling.

“Today’s judgment is an important recognition that fundamentals like the right to a fair hearing cannot be compromised in the fight against terrorism,” he said.

Tony Blair and then home secretary Charles Clarke imposed control orders to replace the highly controversial Belmarsh legislation in 2005. They allow terrorist suspects to be tagged, confined to their homes and banned from communicating with others indefinitely without charge or trial.

The legislation allowing the orders ping’ponged between the Commons and the Lords before finally being accepted, but opposition was fierce.

Labour backbencher and first time rebel Barbara Follett said at the time: “I know this is Britain and not South Africa or Burma but we must not underestimate the importance of what we are doing today and the message that it sends… these principles are the very basis of our democracy and our party. If we destroy them, it destroys us.”

The control order case is the first of several controversial counter-terrorist issues in the new home secretary’s inbox.

It comes as human rights group Justice warned of the increased use of secret evidence in British courts.

The groups said more cases are now being heard involving evidence withheld from defendants, undermining the British justice system.

Home Office officials defended the government’s record on the legislation.