By ROBERT VERKAIK in London and ANDREW GUMBEL in Los Angeles

Britons have lived with a terrorist threat long before September 11 2001. Just a year before the attacks on the twin towers in New York, the Labour Government introduced sweeping anti-terror laws that made a number of acts, including crop trampling, terrorist offences.

But the emergency legislation brought in to defeat al Qaeda represents the greatest erosion of civil liberties since the Second World War.

Under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, enacted in December 2001, 13 "suspected international terrorists" are being interned indefinitely in Belmarsh Prison, south London. They have not been charged and they do not know of what crime they are suspected.

To introduce the legislation Britain is "derogating" or opting out of article five of the European convention on human rights that bans detention without trial.

In America, at least 2000 Muslim non-citizens were rounded up, arrested, held in secret and eventually deported, all but a handful of them for minor visa violations, under a radical revision of standard judicial practice in the wake of 11 September.

Hundreds of fighters captured during the war in Afghanistan were branded "enemy combatants", not prisoners of war as understood under the Geneva Conventions, and consigned to legal limbo - and, in a few dozen cases, suicidal despair - at Guantanamo Bay. The administration reserved the right to arrest and detain suspects indefinitely without trial. A new system of trial by military commission was established to circumvent the civilian courts.

Perhaps most strikingly, the Justice Department proposed, and Congress accepted almost unanimously, the so-called USA Patriot Act, granting law enforcement agents sweeping new powers of search, surveillance and arrest with applications stretching far beyond the president's "war on terrorism".

If it were up to John Ashcroft, the far-right wing attorney general, the Patriot Act would now be extended to deny bail to terror suspects, expand the scope of the death penalty and empower prosecutors to issue subpoenas without approval from grand juries. One draft of a proposed follow-up to the Patriot Act would even empower the government to cancel people's US citizenship.

But opposition to the Patriot Act has been growing, and some of its provisions look set to be rolled back, not expanded. The House of Representatives recently voted overwhelmingly to repeal the so-called "sneak and peek" provision permitting law enforcement to search and seize personal and business property without notification.

The Senate has voted unanimously to deny funding for a cyber-surveillance system denounced as "Orwellian" by its opponents.

A flurry of lawsuits has also challenged everything from the monitoring of library lending records to the criminalisation of those who would advise terror suspects on their legal status.


Herald Feature: The Sept 11 attacks

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