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Nations urged to unite in terror fight

Madrid summit stresses balance of rights, security

MADRID -- On the first anniversary of the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people, a summit of world leaders, diplomats, and some of the globe's best minds on terrorism presented a new international agenda to help governments balance democracy and security.

As the dignitaries expressed their wide-ranging strategy Friday, the nitty-gritty politics of counterterrorism was playing out in a lengthy, bitter battle in the British Parliament, where Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed through a new antiterror law despite intense criticism from opposition members.

While British parliamentarians were arguing over security vs. civil rights, eight foreigners suspected of terrorism were granted bail and ordered released from London's high-security Belmarsh prison into what is effectively house arrest. The eight include an Islamic cleric who Spanish authorities believe provided theological inspiration for the terrorist cell that carried out the Madrid train bombings and who British authorities say is linked to Al Qaeda.

For the politicians and terrorism analysts who gathered last week in Madrid, word of the impending release of the cleric known as Abu Qatada provided a case in point of how difficult, politically divisive, and morally confounding is the battle against terrorism within the context of democracy.

The Club of Madrid, an independent, nonpartisan organization composed of 55 former heads of state, brought together a stellar cast -- which included dozens of current and former heads of state and governments, including President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and King Mohammed VI of Morocco. The three-day summit ended Friday with the presentation of the ''Madrid Agenda," calling for a ''global democratic response to the global threat of terrorism." It urged better cooperation among democracies to fight terrorism while also ensuring that civil rights are respected in every corner of the battle. The document also connected poverty and despair as a root cause of terrorism and encouraged developed countries to stick to promises for aid to poorer countries.

Word of Abu Qatada's release was a reminder of the trade-offs that come with balancing security and democracy.

''It is crazy, but somehow not surprising," said Gilles Kepel, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies of Paris and the author of ''Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam."

''It is a classic example of how the terrorists are playing with the civil liberties of European democracies. They are basically shopping for safe havens. Terrorism is a free market in Europe."

Abu Qatada and seven other foreign nationals were detained without trial under Britain's Antiterrorism, Crime, and Security Act of 2001. The law under which the men were detained without charge, some for more than three years, was deemed unlawful by Britain's highest court in December.

The court ruled it violated the rights of the accused by holding them based on secret intelligence findings that allegedly linked them to international terrorism. Under the law, neither the detainees nor their lawyers were ever presented with the evidence used to hold the suspects, because it came from sources the government did not want to expose in court.

The law -- harshly criticized by civil rights groups since being hastily enacted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States was due to expire tomorrow, and the bitter debate last week was over new legislation to replace it.

Abu Qatada was granted political asylum upon his arrival in Britain in 1993. He has been sentenced in absentia to life in prison by a Jordanian court in relation to a series of explosions there. British law bars deportation of suspects who would face persecution, including torture, in their home countries.

In evidence to the Special Immigration Appeal Commission, former Home Secretary David Blunkett said Abu Qatada was the most significant extremist Islamic preacher in the United Kingdom, with ''extensive contacts to senior terrorists worldwide," including those within Al Qaeda. An immigration judge said Abu Qatada was ''at the center in the UK of terrorist activities associated with Al Qaeda. He is a truly dangerous individual."

Civil rights activists and supporters of the cleric from London's Muslim community said there was no proof of the allegations against him and that his arrest was an injustice only partially corrected by his conditional release.

Fernando Reinares, senior counterterrorism analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute of Madrid and a top adviser on terrorism in the Spanish Ministry of Interior, said Spanish intelligence indicated that Abu Qatada had preached his militant theology from his mosque in London.

Reinares said he was a ''direct line" spreading the call to jihad to several of the suspects in the Spanish government's case against the Islamic cell here, made up of Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, and others.

Abu Qatada's release to house arrest had to be weighed against the cost of diminishing individual rights, Reinares said.

''This is a hard, complex fight against terrorism, and it is always a balance. In Spain, there is a strong feeling that we can't just step over people's human rights. Everything has to be done on the basis of law."

Debate raged over Britain's new counterterrorism law, which allows for the detention of suspects with so-called ''control orders," such as electronic tagging, a strict curfew, and restrictions on phone and Internet use. Blair insisted that the measures were necessary to combat the threat of terrorism.

But a majority in the House of Lords as well as Conservative Party and Liberal Democrat MPs in the House of Commons contend the law fails to sufficiently protect civil liberties. The bill finally passed Friday evening, after Blair agreed that the legislation would be revised within a year.

According to Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, the legislation won't address the long-term problem facing counterterrorism efforts in Britain and elsewhere in Europe: bringing suspects to trial. ''One of the great difficulties across Europe is how do you convert intelligence into evidence," Ranstorp said. ''We've had a lot of detentions, but very few court hearings, and fewer convictions."

Phil Bobbitt, professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin and a specialist on constitutional law and terrorism, said of the British security debate: ''We need to be creative, and I think it sounds like they got this one right. Out of those fierce political debates can come good laws that balance security and civil rights, and that's what it is all about."

Globe correspondent Sarah Liebowitz contributed to this report from London.

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