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Blair Acts Against Muslim 'Fringe' Some See Measures As a Threat to Rights.
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan

London, Aug. 5 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair outlined fundamental changes in British policy and law Friday aimed at reining in what he called the "fanatical fringe" of the country's 2 million Muslims following last month's deadly train and bus bombings.

The measures, some of them effective immediately and others requiring approval by Parliament, include deporting people involved with radical Web sites, shutting down places of worship seen as "fomenting extremism," and criminalizing speech deemed to justify or incite terrorism.

"Let no one be in any doubt," Blair said in a nationally televised news conference. "The rules of the game are changing."

His program comes in response to growing public sentiment here that Britain has allowed itself to become a breeding ground for extremist Muslims from around the world, putting not only Britain at risk, but other nations as well.

"We're angry about them abusing our good nature and our toleration," Blair said. "Coming to Britain is not a right. And even when people have come here, staying here carries with it a duty. That duty is to share and support the values that sustain the British way of life."

His plan seemed set to win approval in Parliament, where the three major parties lined themselves up behind Blair after the attacks and rejected claims that Britain had brought the violence on itself by sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But his plan drew strong criticism from people who said he was sacrificing civil liberties in the name of security. In their view, Britain is echoing the United States' response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Blair's endorsement of tighter regulation of speech -- including words that justify violence -- is particularly controversial in a nation that has prided itself on embracing a rainbow of cultures and religions and tolerating the most incendiary speech.

But Blair, recalling the July 7 transit attacks that killed 52 people in addition to the four bombers and injured more than 700, and a second failed bombing attempt on July 21, said that "for obvious reasons, the mood now is different."

His sentiment about extremists has broad support among the British public. "They're in Britain. They don't want to be British and they hate us. I say we should sling them all out," said Peter Brooks, a 57-year-old London resident.

But Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, a British human rights organization, said her group was "deeply concerned" about the measures. "The fundamental values of a democracy cannot be changed because we are provoked by terrorists," she said.

In particular, she expressed concern over the proposal to make it a crime to say something seen as "condoning, glorifying or justifying" terrorism in Britain or other countries. It was so broad, she said, that it could wind up targeting moderates critical of politicians.

Blair's wife, Cherie Blair, a human rights lawyer, is among those who have said that the government must not go too far in curbing civil rights in reaction to the bombings. In a speech in Malaysia last month, she said Britain needed to prevent and punish terrorism. But she warned that "at the same time, it is all too easy to respond in a way that . . . cheapens our right to call ourselves a civilized nation."

The prime minister said he was not trying to undermine "legitimate political debate," and he was not targeting Britain's Muslim community in general, just people who were "actively engaged in inciting" violence. He denounced as "appalling rubbish" statements that the bombings were legitimate expressions of Muslim anger at the policies of Britain and the United States in Iraq and other parts of the Muslim world.

Blair said some of the new policies would be implemented immediately, some were under "urgent examination," and some would be presented to Parliament as early as next month. He noted that Britain's human rights laws might have to be modified to allow some of the changes, and that he would increase the number of judges available to deal with terrorism and security cases.

Blair said "once new grounds take effect" for deporting people "there will be a list drawn up of specific extremist Web sites, bookshops, centers, networks," and that "active engagement" with any of them would be a "trigger" for possible deportation.

Blair also said the government was examining lengthening the current 14-day period during which police can hold terror suspects without charging them. Police have asked for 90 days, which some human rights officials call excessive.

Blair also said he would review the requirements for obtaining British citizenship to ensure they are "adequate." He noted that current applicants must only "attend a citizenship ceremony, swear allegiance to the country and have a rudimentary grasp of the English language." The requirements have been widely criticized for making it too easy for troublemakers to become citizens and even receive welfare benefits.

Blair said he would establish among Britain's Muslims a commission to advise on how to better integrate into society "those parts of the community presently inadequately integrated." He said he wanted Britain's Muslims, most of whom he said abhor the actions of extremists, to be partners in rooting out radicals.

The British government, following European Union human rights regulations, does not deport people to countries where they might face torture or other inhumane treatment, or death. Some critics expressed fear that Blair's proposals would end that policy. But Blair said he was confident that Britain could get assurances from foreign governments that deportees would be treated humanely.

Abu Qatada, a radical cleric whose inflammatory taped speeches were found at the Hamburg apartment of some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, is being held under house arrest in Britain. British officials have been unable to bring him to trial, but legal impediments that Blair wants to eliminate also prevent the government from sending him to Jordan, where he has been sentenced to death for plotting bomb attacks. Blair said he was close to an agreement with Jordan that would allow Qatada and others to be deported there with assurances of humane treatment.

Blair also named the radical Islamic organizations that would be banned in Britain: Hizb ut-Tahrir and successor groups to the disbanded al-Muhajiroun.

In an interview, Imran Waheed, a spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain, decried Blair's ban, saying, "We condemn these draconian measures which have only exposed the fanaticism of the Blair government."

The party is also banned in "most of the Muslim world" where no form of political dissent is allowed, Waheed said.

The U.S. State Department, in its "Country Reports on Terrorism" released in April, said "The U.S. Government has no evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir has committed any terrorist acts, but the group's radical anti-U.S. and anti-Semitic ideology is sympathetic to acts of violence against the United States and its allies, and it has publicly called on Muslims to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight Coalition forces."

Waheed said his organization "issued a clear denunciation" of the London bombings, which he said were "in no way justified by Islam." He asserted that Blair was not waging war on terrorism, but on Islam.

Al-Muhajiroun officials have described the group as a nonviolent political organization that disbanded about a year ago. But British authorities say it is a radical group that has been linked to suicide bombings in Israel. The group's spiritual leader is Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian-born imam who has expressed "understanding" for the London bombings because of Blair's policies in Iraq and the Middle East.

Blair has "obviously panicked and made some rash decisions," said Anjem Choudary, who said he had been a spokesman for al-Muhajiroun. In an interview, Choudary said that by banning the organizations, Blair was ignoring freedom of speech and religion and the precept of innocent until proven guilty.

Britain's Channel 4 News reported Friday night that one of the suspects in the July 21 bombing attempt, Isaac Hamdi, had been reported to police in 2003 by members of his mosque in south London. Mosque officials sent police a letter saying he was "inciting racial and religious hatred," but police responded that there was nothing they could do under current law, the report said.

Source: Washington Post.
Courtesy Francisco Díaz, La Nueva Cuba.