New counterterror laws likened to “thought crime” by a United Nations inspector have come into force.
A raft of new measures mean people can be jailed for viewing terrorist propaganda online, entering “designated areas” abroad and making “reckless expressions” of support for proscribed groups.
The government also lengthened prisons sentences for several terror offences, ended automatic early release for convicts and put them under stricter monitoring after they are freed.
Sajid Javid said the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 gives “police the powers they need to disrupt terrorist plots earlier and ensure that those who seek to do us harm face just punishment”.
“As we saw in the deadly attacks in London and Manchester in 2017, the threat from terrorism continues to evolve and so must our response, which is why these vital new measures have been introduced,” the home secretary added.
MPs had urged the government to scrap plans to criminalise viewing “information useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”, which goes further than much-used laws that made physically collecting, downloading or disseminating the material illegal.
A report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights said the offence, punishable by up to 15 years in prison, “is a breach of the right to receive information and risks criminalising legitimate research and curiosity”.
A United Nations inspector accused the government of straying towards “thought crime”.
Professor Joe Cannataci said: “It seems to be pushing a bit too much towards thought crime…the difference between forming the intention to do something and then actually carrying out the act is still fundamental to criminal law.”
Original proposals said people would have to access propaganda “on three or more different occasions” to commit a terror offence, but the benchmark was removed meaning a single click is now illegal.
Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the head of UK counterterror policing, previously told The Independent the law accounted for changes in online behaviour.
“Five years ago everyone would download stuff and keep it on their hard drive – now they don’t,” he said in January.
“The law has been controversial but it has come out of good, practical cases … we’re talking about people who are a serious threat here, not people who are researching academics or writing treaties trying to help us solve the problem.”
Mr Basu said he did not expect “an explosion in arrests and charges” as a result of the changes, which target “precursor offending” to terror attacks.
It is now illegal to recklessly express support for, or publish images of flags, emblems or clothing in a way which suggests people are a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation.
The law has extended extra-territorial jurisdiction for a number of terrorism offences, including inviting support for a banned group and making explosives.
It will also see people entering “designated areas” abroad without a reasonable excuse jailed for up to 10 years.
The areas are yet to be defined by the government, but are expected to include territory controlled by terrorist groups and war zones.
The Independent understands that because the law exempts people who remain in such areas involuntarily, it cannot be applied to British Isis members captured in Syria.
It also cannot be applied retrospectively to hundreds of Isis supporters who have already returned to the UK. Only one and 10 have so far been prosecuted.
The government accepted amendments to create specific exemptions including humanitarian work, journalism and funerals after NGOs raised human rights concerns.
The full provisions that have commenced today:
- create an offence of reckless expressions of support for a proscribed organisation;
- create an offence of publication of images, and a police power to seize items as evidence, related to a proscribed organisation;
- create an offence of obtaining or viewing terrorist material over the internet;
- create an offence of entering or remaining in a designated area;
- amend the offences of encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications;
- extend extra-territorial jurisdiction for certain offences including inviting support for a proscribed organisation;
- increase maximum sentences for terrorism offences;
- make extended sentences available for terrorism offences – ending automatic early release and allowing a longer period on licence;
- strengthen notification requirements on convicted terrorists, and introduce greater powers to enter and search their homes;
- extend Serious Crime Prevention Orders for terrorism offences;
- introduce further traffic regulations; and
- provide for a statutory review of Prevent