UK Liberty

Shoddy BBC article – detention times around the world

Posted in detention without charge, politicians on liberty by ukliberty on June 10, 2008

In 2007, when the Government was proposing extending the period of detention without charge, the BBC published an article claiming to compare this period of detention with those of other legal systems.

Today, the article was linked to again from the Politics section on the BBC website. It’s a pity, because the article is pretty shoddy.


how do plans to increase the length of time terror suspects can be held without being charged compare with other countries? A survey by the Foreign Office attempts to make a comparison.

Sadly no, it does not. What it does is discuss terrorism-related legislation in various countries.

The BBC article proceeds to compare apples with not only oranges but some other fruit.


Suspects can be held without access to a lawyer for 72 hours and in pre-trial detention for up to four years.

We were talking about pre-charge detention, not pre-trial detention or detention without access to a lawyer. Three different animals.

Now, there is no direct comparison in the French legal system, but according to Liberty’s comparison of different legal systems (431 Kb PDF, 65 pages) the closest equivalent means that “in France, the maximum period of pre-charge detention in terrorism cases is six days“.


Suspects must be seen by a judge within 48 hours but can be held without trial during the period of investigation. This must be reviewed by a judge at least every six months.

Again, we are talking about charges, not trials. According to Liberty the closest equivalent, “provisional police detention”, is a maximum of 48 hours.


Suspects may be held without charge for up to 12 months, or 18 months in extraordinary cases, which requires a warrant to be issued by the public prosecutor.

It isn’t clear from the FCO document (375 Kb PDF, 40 pages, see page 16) on which the BBC article is based whether there is an equivalent to a ‘charge’ and how long the closest equivalent to the maximum period of detention without charge would therefore be. Now, there is the maximum of five days from the day on which “a warrant for temporary imprisonment” is issued – but it is not clear what the maximum period of detention is after which someone must be issued with a warrant or released.

The BBC writer seems to have quoted the FCO document without understanding it. The Liberty document doesn’t mention Greece.

But the Constitution of Greece says the suspect must be brought before an examining magistrate within 24 hours, and that “the examining magistrate must, within three days from the day the person was brought before him, either release the detainee or issue a warrant of imprisonment.”

So let us say one day, plus three days, plus five days: nine days. Bear in mind this is an (un)educated guess.

Update 27 September 2008 – a commenter says it is in fact six days.


Suspects may be held for 24 hours without seeing a lawyer.

Something else that isn’t the same as not being charged! What on earth was going through the writer’s head?

According to Liberty, “in Italy the maximum period of pre-charge detention is four days.”


Suspects can be held for a maximum of 48 hours, but a judge can increase this period to cover the period of an investigation if it passes a test of “proportionality”.

According to Liberty, “in Norway the maximum period of pre-charge detention in terrorism cases is
three days.”


Terror suspects can be held for 72 hours without their lawyer or relatives being informed and this can be increased to a maximum of 13 days.

The writer is comparing apples with some other fruit.

Liberty says, “The closest equivalent to pre-charge detention in Spain is preventative arrest. In relation to suspected terrorist offences, the maximum period for which a person can be detained under these powers, before being released or handed over to the judicial authorities, is five days.”


Under the 2001 Patriot Act the attorney general can detain foreign suspects but must start deportation proceedings within seven days. Suspects can be held for periods of six months, but cases must be reviewed within a further six months.

In fact, “Following detention the Attorney General must place the individual in removal proceedings or level criminal charges within 7 days of commencement of detention”.

But this only relates to foreign nationals. – what about domestic suspected terrorists?

According to Liberty, “Under U.S. Federal law the maximum period of pre-charge detention for criminal suspects, including those suspected of committing terrorist offences is 48 hours.”

So once again it can be seen that the Government wants to increase the period of pre-charge detention far beyond anything equivalent in the civilised world.

Barring Greece, where the information isn’t at all clear, the longest equivalent period in the countries mentioned is six days. Out of the countries in the Liberty document, the longest period is 7.5 days, in Turkey.

Our dear Government wants to go from the current 28 days to 42 days!

It is worth recalling that it was not so long ago it proposed 90 days, 60 days, and 56 days.

It is also convenient to reiterate that, according to the JCHR, the UK is the only country out of 45 in the Council of Europe to have derogated from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights; the only country in the world to have derogated from Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and, except for the USA, the only country to have resorted to the indefinite detention of people suspected of terrorism.