British government's anti-terrorism legislation establishes new offences

 

The British government last night published its proposals for the new anti-terrorism laws to be passed by parliament this week.

The draft Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill, which goes before the House of Commons today states that the opinion of a senior police officer will be admissible in court as evidence that someone belongs to a specific terrorist group, but his or her word alone would not be enough to secure conviction.

It also proposes limitation on the right to silence and the seizure of assets used for terrorist activity.

The new offences form the centre-piece of the legislation and also amend existing legislation relating to conspiracy to commit a terrorist offence outside the United Kingdom.

The Bill provides that the oral evidence of a senior police officer shall be admissible in court as evidence of membership of a proscribed organisation. Courts hearing such cases will be able to draw inference from the defendant's refusal to answer the questions of a police officer while under caution.

However, further evidence shall be needed to support the opinion of the senior police officer, and no inference shall be drawn from the defendant's refusal to answer questions unless the defendant has first had the opportunity to consult a solicitor. The defendant shall not be committed for trial or be convicted solely on the basis of inferences drawn by the courts or found to have a case to answer or be convicted solely on the basis of a police statement.

The courts shall also draw inference from a defendant's failure to mention a fact "which is material to the offence and which he could be reasonably expected to mention".

The conditions that must be satisfied by the Secretary of State to define a proscribed organisation shall be that the group is concerned with terrorism connected with Northern Ireland, and secondly that the group has not established, or is not maintaining, a complete and unequivocal ceasefire.

Four dissident terrorist groups opposed to the Belfast Agreement will be the main targets of the legislation. Members of the `Real IRA', the Continuity IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Loyalist Volunteer Force could be imprisoned for up to 10 years for membership of a proscribed organisation under the terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The Bill also provides that, in the event of conviction for membership of a proscribed organisation, the courts shall order the forfeiture of any money or other property used at the time of membership which has been used in connection with terrorist activities or the direction of terrorist activities.

If someone other than the person convicted of membership of a proscribed organisation claims ownership of the property or assets, the courts shall hear evidence to that end and the standard of proof required shall be the same as that in civil proceedings.

The court shall also be given the power to forfeit money or property if it believes it may be used in connection with terrorist activities or for their furtherance if it is not confiscated.

A new offence of conspiracy to commit offences outside the United Kingdom, subject to certain conditions, shall also be provided in the Bill. It shall become an offence to conspire in the United Kingdom to commit terrorist offences or other serious offences outside the United Kingdom.

Among the conditions set down in the draft shall be that the alleged offence constitutes an offence under the law of the United Kingdom and of the country where the offence has taken place. The consent of the Attorney General would also be required for proceedings to be instituted.

Publishing the draft Bill, the Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, said that recent terrorist events had made it important to act swiftly and the Bill would send a clear message "that we will not tolerate those who want to use terror to impose their will".

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Dr Mo Mowlam, described the proposed antiterrorist legislation as "consistent with the level of threat" and said it was "essential to underpin the Good Friday agreement and to allow peace to flourish in Northern Ireland".

"The police and the courts must have the power to bring to justice those groups and individuals who show blatant disregard for democracy and peace."