Britain proposes anti-extremism curbs on civil liberties

BIRMINGHAM, England (AFP) - Britain's interior minister on Tuesday proposed measures to ban extremist groups and curb the activities of radical Islamist preachers even if they have committed no crime, in a move denounced as "wholly wrong" by campaigners.

"Not all extremism leads to violence and not all extremists are violent, but the damage caused by extremism to our society is reason enough to act," Home Secretary Theresa May told the annual Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

"We must face down extremism in all its forms. We must stand up for our values," she said, adding: "I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay just within the law."

The clampdown, which would be enacted if Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives are re-elected in May, follows growing concern about radicalised youths heading to fight with Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Under the proposed "Extremism Disruption Orders", British courts would have the power to restrict the activities of individuals to prevent the risk of violence and public disorder, officials said.

Individuals could be banned from speaking at public events, taking part in protests or speaking through the media - a proposal that revives memories of a controversial BBC ban on Irish republican leader Gerry Adams from Sinn Fein during the unrest in Northern Ireland. They could also be ordered to submit any material to the police for vetting before it is put onto the Internet.

Separate "banning orders" would extend existing laws to allow groups to be outlawed even if they did not pose a violent threat, including on the grounds of being a "threat" to democracy. Membership of such groups would then become a criminal offence.

Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties think tank, said the policies were the "thin end of the wedge".

"In a democratic country, it is wholly wrong for people to be labelled an 'extremist' and face having major restrictions placed on their freedom without facing a due legal process and a transparent and accountable system," she said. "The Home Secretary must think very carefully about the international precedent that this policy would set and consider the potential consequences for members of the public."

Officials said the measures, which are to be included in the Conservative manifesto for the general election, would not only target Islamists but could also be used against neo-Nazis or other hardline groups.

British police arrested the high-profile radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary last week along with others suspected of links to a banned extremist group and militancy. Choudary, who was released on bail, said the arrest was "politically motivated" and claimed it was linked to preparations for last week's vote in the British parliament on joining air strikes against ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

May said passports had been withdrawn from 25 British nationals suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS and said the police had made 103 arrests this year "linked to terrorism in Syria".

Among those arrested, 24 have been charged and five convicted, she said.