European nations broaden police powers

A draft British law would allow terrorism suspects to be detained without trial.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Governments across Europe are toughening their security laws in the wake of Sept. 11, causing concern among civil liberties activists that the laws will go too far in curtailing freedoms.

The British government this week proposed detaining some terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial, on the grounds of a "national emergency," as part of a Draconian new law to broaden police powers.

The German parliament is soon due to debate a new law, widening the scope of police investigations of suspected terrorists, and France recently adopted a law that gives police greater freedom of action.

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European rights activists share their American counterparts' concern that the "war on terrorism" will curb civil liberties on their side of the Atlantic, too.

The British legislation "undermines basic principles of justice and freedom" and "punches a hole in our constitutional protections," complains John Wadham, director of Liberty, Britain's leading civil-liberties organization.

"We do need to take measures against terrorist attack, but these measures [in the French law] will not be effective," adds Jean-Pierre Dubois, vice president of the French Human Rights League.

Under the British law, to be debated in Parliament next week and due to be passed by Christmas, the government would declare a state of emergency, allowing it to opt out of one article of the European Convention of Human Rights.

That convention forbids a key element of the new legislation - a plan to detain indefinitely foreign terrorist suspects who cannot be deported. Presenting the bill to Parliament yesterday, Home Secretary David Blunkett said it contained "proportionate and targeted measures, which will ensure and safeguard our way of life against those who would take our freedom away."

Some 20 people are likely to be jailed under the law, government officials say. Similar measures were taken against a handful of Iraqi citizens during the Gulf War, and about 2,000 Irish Republican Army suspects were held without trial during the 1970s in Northern Ireland.

Foreigners on a government list of terrorist suspects will be jailed by a special commission, headed by a senior judge, for renewable six-month periods. The judge will have the authority to bar the suspects and their attorneys from the hearings when the intelligence services present the evidence against them. "The number of people concerned is not the issue," says Mark Littleford, campaigns director for Liberty. "The problem is the matter of principle. The government is seeking to get around the need for substantial evidence."

Among other measures, the bill also introduces a new crime - incitement to religious hatred - carrying a maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment, which civil-liberties activists fear could curb free speech.

Antinuclear campaigners are worried by a clause dealing with nuclear facilities that would make it a crime to publish the details of the movement of nuclear-waste trains.

In Germany, where a number of the alleged ringleaders of the Sept. 11 plot lived and studied for several years, the government is planning new steps to strengthen its antiterrorist legislation.

Parliament has already passed a law giving the authorities the power to ban organizations using their religious status for criminal ends, and is due to consider further measures soon.

Security legislation is especially sensitive in Germany, both because there are 7 million foreigners there, and because of the country's experience of totalitarianism. "People are very cautious about anything to do with identity cards and police powers," says Cem Ozdemir, a spokesman for the Green party, the junior coalition partner in the government. "There is always a tendency to see if something reminds us of our history."

Germany's proposed legislation would make it easier for the authorities to deport suspected terrorists, broaden the federal police force's investigative powers, and introduce new, more detailed identity cards, incorporating biometric elements.

The Greens fought hard to keep even harsher provisions out of the legislation and say they will oppose any move to put citizens' photos on the new ID cards.

With closed-circuit surveillance cameras a common feature in public places, "faces on ID cards would mean we would have a George Orwell state," worries Mr. Ozdemir. "It is not the business of the state to see who is going where when."

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the French government hastily tacked new provisions onto a security bill to widen police powers of search. They may now search car trunks at will, and do not need to go to an investigating magistrate to get a warrant to search houses or business premises.

Though minor compared with the changes envisioned in British law, these measures worry Mr. Dubois because of the way he expects them to be used.

"Police already do identity checks in a very discriminatory way, always checking people who look Arab, and we are concerned that these new measures will be enforced in the same way," Dubois says.

It is not certain, however, that all the new laws against terrorism envisioned in Europe will stand. A British High Court judge this week ordered a judicial review of a government decision to freeze the assets of a Saudi businessmen accused of financing terrorism.

"It is crucial," the judge told the court, that "when there are question marks about orders of this kind, which are of a Draconian nature, that they are properly tested in the courts."

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