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.

14 Responses

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  1. FishNChipPapers said, on June 10, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Great analysis. Thanks.

    I was listening to Today in Parliament (Monday edition) and Jacqui Smith was questioned about the Liberty analysis comparing detention duration. It was a tame question designed to allow Smith to raise questions about comparisons. She responded that she would publish a comparative analysis to refute some of the claims of opponents. Something to watch out for given that she highlighted France in her response too.

  2. […] BBC article gets this all wrong. Here’s a much better analysis from Liberty [pdf]. Hat tip: UK Liberty. If the period expires before you are charged, you must be released from prison but will probably […]

  3. ukliberty said, on June 11, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks, FishNChipPapers.

    An acquaintance wrote to the BBC to complain about the article. It is no longer linked to from the Politics page.

  4. ukliberty said, on June 11, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Jacqui Smith has just said (in her annoying scoffing way) in an intervention that she placed a letter in the Library yesterday regarding the Government’s view of international comparisons.

    This was in response to an earlier intervention that said the Government’s criticism of Liberty (and others) was invalid if they didn’t (indeed hadn’t until yesterday) publish their own view.

  5. almoogaz said, on June 12, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    the story is good


  6. Anonymous said, on June 13, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    But the point is…they are still held, making a charge is a legal nicety that allows suspects to be held.

  7. ukliberty said, on June 16, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Anonymous, making a charge seems more than a “legal nicety”, as a charge may only be made if there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction.

  8. ukliberty said, on June 16, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Further to that, there are two different types of charge. The norm in criminal cases (including terrorism) is a “full code charge”, where the charge is only made if a conviction is “more likely than not” (or “51%” ) likely to succeed.

    But half of terrorism cases have proceeded from “threshold charges” – a charge based on reasonable suspicion the individual committed the offence, based on admissible evidence (note that arrest may result from inadmissible evidence). 92% of these cases have resulted in convictions.

  9. […] That said, there are a couple things (and I could easily be missing some) that I really am proud of.  One, overly generalized, is the level of rights given to our citizens.  For all the controversy over the Patriot Act and other moves in the opposite direction, the US still has much greater levels of civil liberties (broadly defined) than most places.  For example, take the amount of time someone can be held without charges.  In the US, it’s 48 hours.  In France, it’s 6 days.  In Ireland it’s 7.  Britain just extended it to 42 days (!!), though there are some extra safeguards after 28 and it’s very controversial.  Even with the deep impact of terrorism, the US remains judicious here.  (Good analysis here, hat tip to UK Liberty.) […]

  10. Anonymous Greek said, on September 27, 2008 at 12:15 am

    Regarding Greece:

    The Greek constitution says that a suspect caught on the act of committing the crime must be brought in front of the judicial magistrate within 24 hours.

    The authorities usually use this time in its full extent in order to gather sufficient evidence for the persons guilt, if the authorities have not gathered sufficient evidence, for a judicial case, they can present the available evidence to the magistrate requesting a further detention of 3 days in which to thoroughly gather and file the various evidence in order to bring up the case.

    In rare situations (superior force or a hideous crime) the magistrate may extend the 3 days with an additional 2 days.

    So it comes down to this:

    1 day + 3 days + 2 days = 6 days

  11. ukliberty said, on September 27, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Thank you for the info, Anonymous Greek.

  12. Will 42 days be binned? « UK Liberty said, on October 10, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    […] it isn’t merely an argument about the number of days one may be held without charge – already the longest period in the free world – but also the process, particularly the involvement of the Commons (a legislative body) in what […]

  13. Ununteehonge said, on December 27, 2008 at 5:44 am

    tidvngduwunfhqbuwell, hi admin adn people nice forum indeed. how’s life? hope it’s introduce branch ;)

  14. […] For one thing, it is far longer than other countries: Germany and the USA, 48 hours; Norway, 3 days; Italy, 4 days; Spain, 5 days; France and Greece, 6 days; Turkey, 7.5 days. What is so different about the UK that our suspects must be detained for 28 (or 42, or 60, or 90 days)?  […]

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