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Tougher security laws wanted as threat rises

Reuters | July 16, 2007
Michael Holden

Security Minister Alan West said on Monday the country faced a threat from more than 200 militant cells and signalled the government may try to re-introduce a contentious plan to extend the time terrorism suspects can be held without charge.

Outlining the scale of the threat, West said security services were monitoring around 4,000 individuals in more than 200 networks.

Of these, 30 groupings were being looked at "very closely indeed" as they had "got to the stage where they are gathering material ... which will lead in fairly short terms to doing something if they wanted to," West told BBC radio.

Police and the security services, backed by the government, have consistently argued they need longer to hold suspects because of the nature of the threat from Islamist militants.

They say that because of the risk of suicide bombings, they may have to make arrests before all the proof needed to carry out effective prosecutions in court has been collected.

At present suspects can be held without charge for 28 days, after a government bid 2 years ago to allow police to hold people for up to 90 days was rejected by parliament.

West indicated the government would again seek to give officers more than 28 days to question suspects and collect evidence.

"How we exactly do that is something I hope we can come to sort of consensus with," he said, adding any extension would need rigorous judicial oversight.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman told reporters the government was listening to the police and would aim to make an announcement about its plans in the next few weeks.

Opposition politicians and civil rights groups say there is no evidence that any change is required and warn that holding some suspects for long periods and releasing them without charge alienated and angered many of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims.

The issue returned to prominence on Sunday when Ken Jones, head of the association grouping Britain's top police chiefs said officers should be allowed to hold suspects for as long as necessary, provided judges agreed it was appropriate.

West admitted there had been no cases so far which had required more than 28 days but said the questioning of suspects accused of plotting to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners using liquid explosives last year had gone "right up to the wire".

"We almost didn't get the material," he said.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties reiterated they would object to any move to extend the 28-day period while human rights group Liberty said the notion of judicial oversight was "clutching at straws".

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