LONDON – Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) won the support of Parliament Friday for a new anti-terrorism law, which will allow it to act swiftly against eight foreign terror suspects who have been granted bail.
The House of Lords (search) approved new powers to order house arrest, impose curfews and electronic tagging without trial, after the government made concessions to end a bitter parliamentary deadlock.
The Prevention of Terrorism Bill (search), which also allows the government to ban terror suspects from meeting certain people or traveling, and to restrict their access to the Internet or telephone, later received the formality of royal assent to become law.
The new control orders are likely to be used first against the eight foreign nationals, including radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada who has alleged links to Al Qaeda. The men have spent three years in a high security prison without charge but were granted bail at a special commission in London Friday.
Justice Duncan Ouseley set strict bail conditions for them, including a nighttime curfew, restrictions on who they can meet and on their access to mobile phones and the Internet. Qatada, described by a Spanish judge as Usama bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe," was also banned from preaching at mosques or leading prayers under the conditions of his bail.
However, the law under which the men were detained, and which allowed the judge to set such bail conditions, expires on Monday. The government urgently wanted its new powers cleared by Parliament and had warned that without new legislation the men could have walked free.
Under the new law, the government must apply to a judge to issue house arrest orders, but in an emergency a minister can immediately order the lesser measures and seek a court approval within seven days.
It is likely the government will impose controls similar to the strict bail conditions set Friday. The government has indicated it will not try to impose the toughest measure of house arrest on the eight men.
Parliament was deadlocked for almost two days over the bill, which will apply to both foreign nationals and Britons, with both the government and opposition refusing to make concessions.
The main opposition Conservative Party said the legislation would infringe civil liberties and had demanded a so-called sunset clause guaranteeing that the law would expire a year after being passed. The government refused, saying such an amendment would send out a message that Britain was soft on terrorism.
Seeking to end the standoff, the government produced a timetable for Parliament to review and amend the law and promised Parliament time to draft more wide ranging legislation later in the year.
The struggle to pass the legislation became an extraordinary political battle between Blair and Conservative leader Michael Howard, in advance of a national election expected in May.
Both took to the airwaves Friday attacking each other's position. Blair accused Howard of jeopardizing national security. Howard questioned whether the public could trust Blair, following concerns over his government's use of intelligence ahead of the war in Iraq.
The concession was sufficient for both sides to back down — and claim victory.
"The prime minister has been forced to announce a sunset clause in all but name, he just couldn't quite bring himself to admit it," said Howard. He dropped Conservative demands that the controls should not be imposed on the mere suspicion of intelligence agencies.
The government has said the new law would be used sparingly and only against suspects who could not be tried in court because evidence against them would be too sensitive to reveal publicly.
The eight men bailed on Friday were held under laws passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks allowing the indefinite detention of some foreign terror suspects without trial.
In December, Britain's highest court ruled that the law was illegal and breached the European Convention on Human Rights, and it expires on March 14.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Qatada was named by the U.S. Treasury as a terrorist supporter and his assets were frozen. Weeks after the attacks, he railed publicly against corrupt Western governments and spoke of his "respect" for bin Laden.
Former British Home Secretary David Blunkett said Qatada's sermons as an extremist Islamist preacher had been "an inspiration" for terrorists, including Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
The seven other men granted bail Friday were Palestinian Mahmoud Suliman Ahmed Abu Rideh and detainees identified only as B, P, E, H, K and Q. An Algerian man, identified as A, was released on bail Thursday.