If Liberty's report comparing pre-charge detention periods across countries was "campaigning zeal," I make no apology for itby Shami Chakrabarti / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Liberty recently published a study that demonstrated that Britain’s current 28-day limit on pre-charge detention is much longer than in 15 comparable democracies around the world, based on advice from leading lawyers and academics. Alex Carlile, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, dismisses this research as “mere campaigning zeal.”
Yet Carlile’s article actually demonstrates just how far the few remaining supporters of longer pre-charge detention have to go to justify any extension beyond 28 days. Faced with the fact that the US constitution limits pre-charge detention to just two days, Carlile’s response is that the British government’s proposal is not as bad as Guantánamo bay or extraordinary rendition. Surely Britain, which many used to see as a beacon of liberty, can aspire to more than that.
In a similar vein, Carlile argues that Liberty’s study is too kind to the French because, he implies, suspects are often ill-treated by French police during the six days they are allowed to be held before charge. I certainly condemn any such violation of French domestic and international law, but I struggle to see how this justifies Britain holding people without charge for over a month.
Carlile’s comments on Italy, meanwhile—suggesting that the suspects in the murder of the British student Meredith Kercher could spend up to a year in custody without being charged—flatly contradict the advice we have received from Italian lawyers and, I suspect, reveal confusion between pre-charge and pre-trial detention. There is a major difference between the two. In Italy, after charge, continued detention is based on hard evidence rather than mere police suspicion and, at the point of charge, the case is handed from the police to the prosecution and the suspect is formally told what s/he is alleged to have done.
Why does Britain need to hold people for over a month when so many other countries manage with pre-charge detention periods of less than a week? Rather than answer the question, proponents of longer pre-charge detention argue either that despite the international nature of the threat from terrorism, Britain’s counterterror laws somehow exist in a vacuum, or that international comparisons are impossible.
Of course, comparisons can be difficult—Liberty has never pretended otherwise—but the difficulties can be overplayed. Britain’s criminal justice system has been exported around the world—one of the better legacies of colonialism—meaning that comparisons are sometimes quite straightforward. No common law country we received advice on…