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.