By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 16, 2006
LONDON, Feb. 15 -- The House of Commons on Wednesday backed a bill that would make "glorification" of terrorism a criminal offense, a measure that Prime Minister Tony Blair called crucial to Britain's battle against religious extremists.
"Parliament has now sent out a very strong signal," Blair said in a statement after the 315-to-277 vote. "I think that signal of strength is vital in circumstances where the threat that we face is not just from the individual acts of terrorism but the people who celebrate it, who try and entice other people or recruit other people into doing it."
The measure, called the terrorism bill, still must be approved by the House of Lords, which voted last month to strip the "glorification" clause out of it. It was unclear whether the Lords would continue to object to the proposal on grounds that it infringes on civil liberties or back down in the face of Wednesday's clear margin of victory.
Wednesday's vote came as two major free-speech issues were driving public debate here: the conviction of radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza Masri on charges of inciting racial hatred, and protests over a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
Opponents of the terrorism bill called it unnecessary and noted that Masri was convicted under existing laws against inciting violence or racial hatred.
But Blair said police could have acted against Masri sooner if they could have charged him with glorification of terrorism. Blair also noted that the law could have allowed criminal charges to be filed against people at the anti-cartoon protests who carried placards celebrating the attackers in last summer's London bombings.
The terrorism bill was introduced by Blair's government after July's bomb attacks on the London public transport system, which resulted in the deaths of 52 passengers in addition to the four bombers. It has pitted defenders of Britain's long history of free expression against those, including Blair, who argue that religious extremists have taken advantage of Britain's tolerance to incite violence and hatred.
Several of the most restrictive aspects of the bill have been withdrawn or voted down; Parliament rejected Blair's proposal that police be allowed to hold suspected terrorists for 90 days without charge. But Wednesday's vote was an important victory for Blair, who has defiantly defended the bill despite strong opposition from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and defectors in his own Labor Party.
"Wouldn't it be better to have a watertight law designed to catch the guilty, rather than a press release law designed to catch the headlines?" William Hague, a Conservative Party member of Parliament, said Wednesday during the prime minister's weekly question-and answer session in Commons, calling "glorification" an imprecise legal term.
"If we take out the word 'glorification,' it sends a massive counterproductive signal," Blair responded. "It is a word that members of the public and juries readily understand."