Substantial anti-terror Bill changes proposed by Government

 

Two substantial amendments are among the drafting changes to the new emergency legislation which the Government tabled yesterday in advance of today's recall of the Dail.

They are designed to meet the demands of the Opposition parties, all of which, with the exception of Fine Gael, have tabled a plethora of amendments to the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill, 1998. The Bill was published on Monday to give legal effect to the measures announced by the Government in the wake of the Omagh bombing.

The Government is now proposing that an accused person will have to be produced before a judge in court before the period of detention can be extended from 48 to 72 hours under the new Bill. The judge shall then hear any submissions made, and consider any evidence adduced by or on behalf of the person and by the Garda officer making the application for an extension of the detention period.

In the second substantial amendment, the Government is dropping the provision that an inference can be drawn from the accused remaining silent after they have been charged. Consequent drafting changes have also been tabled by the Government.

Labour Party sources claimed last night that their spokesman, Mr Pat Upton, had been lobbying the Minister for Justice, Mr O'Donoghue, to produce these amendments since the weekend. The party will seek other changes when the Dail meets in emergency session to debate and pass all stages of the Bill by tonight. The Labour Party is pressing that the newly-created offence of withholding material information should not relate to health or medical professionals or to any possible proposals in the future for the mandatory reporting of child abuse. It wants the Bill to lapse automatically in the year 2000, unless the Minister reports on the details of its operation and brings forward new legislation.

Democratic Left has tabled eight amendments to the Bill for consideration. Its spokeswoman, Ms Liz McManus, said the general purpose of the amendments was to counterbalance the stringent powers being given to gardai with additional safeguards to protect the interests of the innocent.

The primary change being sought by DL is that the new powers would lapse by March 31st next unless the Human Rights Commission promised in the Belfast Agreement has been established.

DL is also seeking to require the Minister for Justice to make a report every three months to a Dail committee giving details of the workings of the Bill. The party wants video-recording of interviews with any person detained for a period beyond 48 hours. Ms McManus welcomed the Government's amendments but said that they did not go far enough in providing the protection necessary.

Welcoming the legislative response to the Omagh atrocity, the Green Party warned that some sections of the Bill could infringe civil liberties and divert attention away from the Belfast Agreement. The proposed "Draconian measures" should be changed to ensure the safe conviction of terrorists, a party spokesman said.

In its list of amendments, the Green Party is seeking the retention of the presumption of innocence, mandatory video-taping of evidence and the right of a suspect to have a solicitor present, the removal of association as evidence of membership of a terrorist organisation and that any new measures should only be in place until the first anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

Amnesty International's international secretariat, in a statement, said last night that the proposals for new emergency measures violate international standards. It urged the law-makers of Ireland to stand firm to the commitments made in the Belfast Agreement to respect human rights and to the early removal of emergency provisions. "It is in the face of incidents such as the bombing at Omagh that a government's commitment to upholding the rule of law and their international obligations to respect the human rights of all people is tested," Amnesty International said.

A spokesman for Fine Gael said the party was not tabling any amendments to the Bill at this stage. It would study the detail of the provisions at Committee Stage, he added.

Mr Joe Higgins, the independent socialist TD, said the Bill was a totally cynical response to the tragedy of Omagh and would prove to be counterproductive in many ways. Having already signalled his intention to oppose the Bill, he said the legislation turned the traditional onus of proof on its head in a most alarming way.