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Blair defends record on rights, democracy, justice

Written by: Staff

LONDON, Feb 26 (Reuters) British Prime Minister Tony Blair, accused both nationally and from within his own Labour Party of undermining civil liberties, today said his critics were mistaken and out of touch with reality.

Blair has won three consecutive elections since leading his party out of 18 years in the political wilderness in 1997. But he has said he will not stand for a fourth term, and has suffered three parliamentary defeats since November.

He only won key votes this month on banning smoking in public places, introducing national identification cards and anti-terrorism laws by significantly changing initial proposals to head off a revolt from his own lawmakers.

''I accept the good faith of our critics. I just believe them to be profoundly mistaken,'' Blair wrote in the Observer newspaper in an article entitled ''I don't destroy liberties, I protect them''.

''If the nature of the threat changes so should our policies.

That is not destroying our liberties, but protecting them.'' Blair said he was the most libertarian and accountable prime minister, bringing in key human rights legislation, spending proportionately more time taking questions in parliament than any predecessor and holding monthly news conferences.

''I am from that generation that I would characterise, crudely, as hard on behaviour but soft on lifestyle i.e. I support tough measures on crime but am totally pro gay rights,'' wrote the devoutly Catholic father of four.

''I believe in live and let live, except where your behaviour harms the freedom of others. A society with rules but without prejudices is how I might sum it up,'' he added.

Blair introduced controversial Antisocial Behaviour Orders -- known as ASBO's -- and in January launched the ''Respect Action Plan'' to combat the growing scourge of street violence.

He said that while he condemned the bombing and murder campaign waged by the Irish Republican Army fighting for a united Ireland, it was of a different character from the threat posed by suicide bombers like those who struck London in July.

The raft of anti-terrorism laws that had been passed since the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001 had been a response to the new threat.

''For me this is not an issue of liberty but modernity,'' he wrote. ''The question is not one of individual liberty vs. the state but of which approach best guarantees most liberty for the largest number of people.

''People should be prevented from glorifying terrorism. You can say it is a breach of the right of free speech but in the real world, people get hurt when organisations encourage hatred,'' he added.

Reuters SK VP0452

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