U.K. Vote on Terrorism Suspects Sparks Outrage

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Britain's House of Commons voted Wednesday to increase the period of time a terrorism suspect may be held without charges — from 28 days to 42 days. Opposition groups, civil rights campaigners and dissident members of the ruling party are outraged.


Britain's lower house of Parliament has voted to increase the amount of time a terror suspect may be held without charge, and that bid to curtail one of Britain's most cherished rights has caused bitter dissention among lawmakers.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and some security experts insist that extending the current detainment from 28 to 42 days is vital to coping with increasingly complex terror conspiracies. Vicki Barker has more from London.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Unidentified Man: Order, order.

VICKI BARKER: The right not to be detained without charge is enshrined in the Magna Carta, the 13th-century foundation stone of British democracy. So this was always going to be an emotional debate.

Unidentified Woman: The aye's to the right, 315 - the no's to the left, 306.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of booing)

BARKER: Gordon Brown won by nine votes, precisely the number of lawmakers in the DUP, Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. The prime minister had met with them barely two hours before. More than 30 MPs from his own governing Labour Party voted with the opposition.

Unidentified Man: Order, order.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Unidentified Man: Order.

BARKER: For Brown, a day of arm-twisting, cajoling, inducements and concessions behind the scenes and of passionate public defense of a policy which it appears no one in British law enforcement or the intelligence community had actually requested.

The prime minister's argument was that democracies are supposed to create laws like this before they're needed.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (Great Britain): It seems to me that in a moment of calm, we should put in place this legislation, and I do not want, in a moment of panic, for people to have to come to the House and bring in emergency legislation.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

BARKER: But the opposition leader, David Cameron, argued the price was too high.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Conservative Party): Isn't it clear that terrorists want to destroy our freedom? And when we trash our liberties, we do their work for them?

(Soundbite of cheering)

BARKER: Which put the leader of Britain's Conservative Party in rare accord with that elder statesman of the Labour Party's radical left, Tony Benn.

Mr. TONY BENN (Labour Party Member, Great Britain): Well, I never thought I would be in the House of Commons on a day when Magna Carta was repealed. It is Osama bin Laden's biggest victory, because we have been persuaded to abandon rights we've held and boasted about, and the DUP apparently had some financial concessions, which is exactly the case of selling your birthright for a mess of pottage.

BARKER: Yet polls show 70 percent of Britons believe the threat justifies extended detention. A promise to compensate people held beyond 28 days and then released without charge won over some wavering British Muslim leaders and lawmakers, but not Ph.D. student Rizlan Sabhir(ph). He was arrested and held for six days after printing out an al-Qaeda manual in the course of his research on Islamic extremism.

Mr. RIZLAN SABHIR (Ph.D. Student): I would advise Gordon Brown to go into his bathroom, lock himself there and block out all natural lighting and only take a blanket in, be held in there for 42 days away from his family and his loved ones for reasons that he has no idea of, and then offer him compensation, and let's see if he takes it open-armed.

BARKER: The legislation now goes to the House of Lords, where it faces even stiffer resistance. But though Britain's upper chamber can stall legislation, ultimately, it alone cannot stop the 42-day limit from becoming law. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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