Britain’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the government overstepped its power when it froze the bank accounts of five terrorist suspects without a vote in Parliament. It said the special Treasury orders were unlawful.
The government said it had a duty to disrupt terrorist financing, and would seek Parliamentary approval for “fast-track legislation to ensure there is no disruption to our terrorist asset-freezing powers.”
The court also ruled that the suspects’ names should be made public, after a challenge by media groups including The Associated Press. They had initially been granted anonymity and identified only by initials.
The five men had their assets frozen by the Treasury between 2005 and 2007 and have had to apply for permission even to buy groceries and other essentials. They are accused by the government of offenses including meeting al-Qaida leaders and giving support to terrorist organizations in Pakistan, but they have not been charged or convicted by any court.
The men’s assets were seized based on two U.N. Security Council resolutions that imposed sanctions on people alleged to be funding terrorism.
The judges said the effect on the men’s lives had been “very burdensome ... The impact on normal family life is remorseless and it can be devastating.”
Seven Supreme Court judges ruled that the Treasury did not have the power to make orders that “interfere so profoundly with individuals’ fundamental rights without parliamentary scrutiny.”
The lead justice, Lord Phillips, said the ruling “upholds the supremacy of Parliament in deciding whether or not measures should be imposed that affect the fundamental rights of those in this country.”
The decision is the latest in a series of court rulings undermining tough anti-terrorism measures introduced by the British government after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The ruling could have far-reaching implications for the government’s ability to freeze assets in the future. More than 50 people living in Britain are believed to be on the Treasury sanctions list.
Four of the suspects were named by the court as Mohammed Jabar Ahmed, Mohammed Azmir Khan, Michael Marteen and Hani El Sayed Sabaei Youssef. At an earlier hearing the justices lifted the anonymity order against the fifth, Mohammed al-Ghabra, whose name had already been in the public domain.
Al-Ghabra is a British citizen who was born in Syria, and the others are originally from Egypt. Three of them - Ahmed, Khan and Marteen - are brothers.
The men had argued that revealing their names would harm their reputations, infringe their right to privacy or even lead to reprisals against family members in Egypt.
The court said these concerns were outweighed by “a powerful general public interest” in identifying the men.
In Youssef’s case, the court said his argument for anonymity was undermined by the fact that he regularly publishes articles and broadcasts on Al-Jazeera under his own name.
The judges said there had been a large and unjustified increase in anonymity orders in court cases, and supported an argument by the media groups that identifying suspects was essential to telling the full story.
“If newspapers can identify the people concerned, they may be able to give a more vivid and compelling account which will stimulate discussion of the impact of freezing orders and their impact upon the communities in which people live,” they said in their ruling. “Concealing their identities simply casts a shadow over entire communities.”