LONDON – The British government is considering creating special, closed-door anti-terror courts for pretrial hearings to determine how long suspects can be held without charge, the Home Office and newspaper reports said Tuesday.
Terror suspects can now be held for 14 days without charges, but — amid investigations into the deadly July 7 bombings and the failed July 21 attacks on London's mass-transit system — police have asked the government to extend this period to three months.
A Home Office spokeswoman, who like all British civil servants is barred from being quoted by name, said the government was considering a new pretrial process but gave no other details. However, The Guardian reported Tuesday that the new courts would meet privately to consider cases against terror suspects and rule on how long they could be kept in custody. The newspaper report cited Home Office sources.
Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) last week announced a series of tough new measures aimed at fighting terrorism and rooting out Islamic extremism. By the year's end, the government intends to pass legislation that would outlaw "indirect incitement" of terrorism — targeting extremist Islamic clerics who glorify acts of terrorism and seduce impressionable Muslim youth.
Blair also said his government plans to bar radical Muslim clerics from entering Britain, close mosques linked with extremism, and if necessary amend human rights laws to make it easier to deport foreign nationals suspected of links with terrorism.
On Tuesday, one of three fundamentalist Muslim clerics whom the government has criticized confirmed that he had temporarily left Britain for Lebanon. Sheik Omar Bakri (search), the founder and spiritual leader of the now-disbanded radical Islamic group al-Muhajiroun, told the British Broadcasting Corp. he would return in four to six weeks unless the government declared him unwelcome.
Bakri, who came to Britain in 1985 and holds dual Lebanese-Syrian citizenship, could not immediately be reached for further comment.
Britain's deputy Prime Minister John Prescott urged Bakri to stay out of the country. "Enjoy your holiday — make it a long one," Prescott said Tuesday when asked about Bakri at a press conference.
The chief prosecutor's office is also considering reviving an old law, making it possible to file treason charges against those who praise acts of terrorism. The law, with roots in the Middle Ages, has rarely been used since World War II.
The July 7 homicide bombings on three London Underground subway lines and a double-decker bus killed 56 people, including four attackers. Exactly two weeks later, on July 21, bombs also planted on three trains and a bus only partially detonated, causing no casualties but further alarming the already-traumatized British capital.
Police believe they have all four July 21 attackers in custody after a series of dramatic arrests last month. Muktar Said Ibrahim (search), 27, Ramzi Mohammed (search), 23, and Yassin Hassan Omar (search), 24, were ordered Monday to remain in custody in Britain until Nov. 14 on charges of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, possessing or making explosives and conspiracy to use explosives. They face life imprisonment if convicted.
British investigators questioned the fourth suspected attacker, Hamdi Issac (search), also known as Osman Hussain, in Rome on Tuesday. Britain is seeking his extradition.
Issac's lawyer Antonietta Sonnessa said the British questioning was "concentrated on the circumstances of the act and the reasons for it."
Issac also was shown photos of other suspects in the London attacks, the lawyer said, but didn't say if he recognized anyone.
Sonnessa said Issac had repeated his contentions that the bombing attempt "was an attention-grabbing act and that as far as he knew the contents of the bag were not aimed at harming anyone, including himself."
No one has been charged in the July 7 bombings. All attackers are believed to have died.