Human rights a casualty in war on terror?

Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Arab News
15 August 2003

Southeast Asias long struggle for democracy and human rights could be among the first casualties as governments in the region come under increasing pressure to wage all-out war on terrorism.

In Indonesia, the front line of the war on terror, human rights groups, politicians and academics have cautioned that a move to reintroduce draconian security laws could push the country back into the dark ages of President Suhartos dictatorship.

The ongoing debate is whether Indonesia should adopt an Internal Security Act like Singapores. The answer is no, said Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, coordinating minister for political and security affairs.

Yudhoyono, however, admitted the Aug. 5 terrorist attack on the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta highlighted the need for the country to consider tougher legislation that would allow authorities greater liberties in taking preventative action against future terrorists.

We need a law that will allow us to prevent and deter an act of terrorism, Yudhoyono told a press conference.

Such comments have led observers to believe the government is considering a reintroduction of legislation similar to the anti-subversion act, annulled in 1999 after the downfall of the autocrat Suharto.

The anti-subversion act and the internal security acts of Singapore and Malaysia allow authorities to arrest people on the basis of suspicion, rather than hard proof of engaging in illegal activities.

Critics of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have accused him of using the Internal Security Act as a weapon against his opponents, particularly former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Reacting to the Aug. 5 hotel bombing in Jakarta, Mahathir, 77, said his government would heighten security surveillance in order to prevent a similar attack from taking place in Malaysia.

The Malaysian government has arrested some 90 suspected militants since early 2001, many of whom were alleged members of the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Singapores internal security law was used to detain more than 30 suspected JI terrorists who were alleged to have plotted to bomb US and other foreign missions in the city state.

Both Malaysia and Singapores internal security acts allow authorities to detain suspected terrorists for up to two years without trial.

Amnesty Internationals annual report in May said the law presumes guilt without fair and open legal due process. Amnesty also said 18 suspects arrested in August 2002 were denied access to lawyers and relatives during the first few weeks of their detention.

The dust had barely settled after the Jakarta hotel blast when the Thai government drafted two executive decrees intended to give police and military authorities sweeping powers to arrest would-be terrorists.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the new laws, which bypassed normal parliamentary debate and took immediate effect on Aug. 11, were needed quickly to ensure the safety of world leaders planning to attend the APEC summit meeting in Bangkok in October.

Sen. Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Thai Senates Foreign Relations Committee, said the decrees took fellow legislators by surprise.

Its a bit rash to do that, Kraisak said. Terrorism in Thailand is not as pressing compared to Indonesia. They already have draconian laws in these countries and they use them against the opposition, especially in Malaysia. I hope it doesnt happen here.

He compared the anti-terrorism decrees to Thailands anti-communist law, which was used in the 1970s as a legal cover for extrajudicial killings, and the imposition of long prison terms without trial.

I fear this law will give the government too much power, Kraisak said.

In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been pushing Congress to enact a controversial law aimed at strenghtening the governments campaign against terrorism.

The proposed law would, among other things, allow the imposition of death penalty for terrorist acts, increase powers of police and military to conduct surveillance, and lengthen periods of legal detention without bail or filing of charges against terrorist suspects.

Currently, terror suspects are arrested and charged under such crimes as murder and illegal possession of explosives or firearms which carry lighter penalties and could even allow bail depending on the evidence of the prosecution.

Human rights activists, however, have expressed concern over the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act, which they warned could be abused by government and law enforcement agencies. They also warned that such a law could be used to harass critics of government in the guise of pursuing terrorists.

Among the provisions being opposed are those authorizing wire-tapping and warrantless arrests of terror suspects.

Security officials have also backed proposals to establish a national identification system to help authorities identify and track down suspected terrorists and accomplices.

Under the proposed system, various personal information of individuals would be kept in a central database, which would also be used as a basis for issuing ID cards that would become the only valid ID for official transactions.

While the proposal had gained some support because it would greatly facilitate identification and transactions with government, critics warned the system could be used to monitor activities of various individuals, especially those opposed to government.

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