Prime minister calls for 'profound rebalancing' of civil liberties in favor of society

Prime Minister Tony Blair called Monday for a far-reaching reform of Britain's criminal justice system to put the safety of ordinary citizens ahead of the rights of criminals.

Blair's call for "a profound rebalancing of the civil liberties debate" came a day after he ordered a review of the nation's human rights act amid an uproar over the handling of criminal cases by both Blair's administration and several courts.

"The demands of the majority of the law-abiding community have to take precedence," Blair said.

The new get-tough attitude comes amid a political crisis for Blair, who reshuffled his Cabinet in a bid to cling to power following disastrous local election results. The prime minister, who has expressed his desire to complete his third and final term, has been battling a series of battles on several fronts.

Blair's position has been undermined by the recent disclosure that his government released more than 1,000 foreign convicts from prison without considering them for deportation. In a separate case, a rapist was accused of killing a woman while on parole after probation officers set him free, citing human rights concerns.

Just as that crisis appeared to ebb, a court decided that nine Afghan men who hijacked a plane to Britain in 2000 should be allowed to stay in the country as refugees a ruling hotly disputed by Blair's government. The Afghans said that they would be endangered by Taliban loyalists.

The ruling outraged Blair, who argued that public safety should take precedence over the rights of people who violated Britain's laws with acts such as hijacking.

"I think what people want is a society without prejudice but with rules, rules that are fair, rules that we all play by, and rules that if they are broken carry a penalty," Blair said in a speech launching a round of government meetings on possible legal reforms.

"We will need to look again at whether primary legislation is needed to address the issue of court rulings which overrule the government in a way that is inconsistent with other European Union countries' interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights," Blair wrote in a letter to Home Secretary John Reid.

Under particular scrutiny is the Human Rights Act, which came into force in October 2000 and has been controversial since its inception. Its critics say that the measure a sweeping amalgamation of laws designed to safeguard individual freedoms allows the government to place the rights of criminals above the rights of the victims.

A British opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, rounded on Blair's handling of the criminal justice system, saying he had presided over a wholesale degeneration in law and order.

"Who does Mr. Blair think he's kidding when he now claims he is the man to restore confidence in our criminal justice system, after such a lamentable nine-year record?" said Nick Clegg, the spokesman on domestic issues for the party, reports AP.

O.Ch.