LONDON -- Britain is considering setting up secretive courts to make it easier to prosecute terrorism suspects -- and to hold them without a charge for longer than the current 14 days -- as part of the crackdown following the deadly London bombings, officials said yesterday.
The Home Office said it was weighing changing the pretrial process to deal with particularly sensitive terrorism cases, with the aim of ''securing more prosecutions." Currently, terrorism suspects can be held for two weeks without charge; after they are charged, police can no longer question them. Police have asked the government to extend this period to three months.
The anti-terrorism courts, run by judges with high-level security clearances, would meet behind closed doors to study the merits of the case against terrorism suspects, rule on highly sensitive evidence, and decide how long the suspect could be held, the Guardian newspaper reported yesterday, citing unidentified Home Office officials.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because government policy bars her from being quoted by name, confirmed a new pretrial procedure is under consideration, but would not provide any other details.
''I want to emphasize: There is no question of secret trials, there is no question of jury-less trials, there is no question of any sort of internment," Britain's chief legal official, Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer, told BBC radio. ''What is being suggested is . . . just a sensible period to detain suspects while a sensible investigation is going on."
The July 7 bombings and the attempted attacks two weeks later prompted the British government to propose new anti-terrorism laws aimed at rooting out Islamic extremists. The measures, which could include deporting foreigners to countries where torture is believed to be widespread, sparked concern yesterday from the UN special envoy on torture.
Human-rights laws now prevent Britain from deporting people to a country where they may face torture or death. But Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to win pledges from the countries that they would not subject deportees to inhumane treatment.
An agreement has been reached with Jordan, and Britain is talking to Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt. Blair also said the government might amend Britain's human-rights legislation to make it easier to deport Islamic extremists.
''If there is a substantial risk in a certain country like Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, etc., then diplomatic assurances cannot be used," UN envoy Manfred Nowak told BBC radio. ''If a country usually and systematically practices torture, then of course they would deny they were doing it because it is absolutely prohibited."
Other measures being considered by the government involve turning up the pressure on radical Muslim clerics believed to support the militants.
Amid growing calls to charge some clerics under incitement and treason laws, one of the most radical firebrand leaders left Britain.
Sheik Omar Bakri, who earned a reputation for extremism during his 20 years in Britain, announced yesterday that he is in Lebanon. Bakri said he is visiting relatives.
''Enjoy your holiday -- make it a long one," Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said when asked about Bakri at a news conference.