Controversial anti-terrorism law comes into force in the UK

Campaigners say the legislation could restrict free speech and cross the line on human rights

Sajid Javid, U.K. home secretary, departs from a meeting of cabinet ministers inside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May offered to hold talks with opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to break the Brexit deadlock. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
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British citizens travelling to terrorism hotspots will face up to 10 years in prison under a controversial new law that came into force on Friday.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 creates a criminal offence of entering a “designated area” overseas, in an effort to boost the authorities’ ability to tackle the threat from returning fighters.

Any individual found to have entered or remained in a designated area could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The legislation overturns previous laws that required proof of wrong doing – in this case joining or fighting alongside an extremist group – for a conviction to take place.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the new laws give the 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,” he said.

Britain was hit by five attacks in 2017, and 18 plots were foiled in the last two years.

The bill proposes broader powers for border guards to stop and search individuals on the basis of suspicion and criminalises the viewing of terrorist-linked material online. Exemptions have been made for media professionals and researchers who access this content for professional purposes or for those attending a relative's funeral.

Campaigners for press freedom and human rights watchdogs have raised serious concerns about the broadening of the authorities’ ability to intervene on the grounds of tackling “hostile state” activity.

Nine organisations, including Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, have released a joint statement warning that this “vaguely defined” crime will give border guards wide-ranging powers to stop, search and detain suspects, including journalists.

It would be an offence for a journalist not to answer questions or hand over materials, with no protection for confidential sources.

Only about 10 per cent of returnees have been prosecuted over “direct action” in Syria, according to official figures. The government says a significant proportion of those who have come back are no longer of national security concern.