(New York) -- New anti-terrorism legislation approved by the Indian cabinet on Tuesday would give Indian police sweeping powers of arrest and detention, Human Rights watch warned today.
The broadly worded "Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance," which likely will be considered by the Indian parliament during its winter session beginning in November, sets forth a broad definition of terrorism that includes acts of violence or disruption of essential services carried out with "intent to threaten the unity and integrity of India or to strike terror in any part of the people." It also extends existing law by making it a crime not to provide authorities with "information relating to any terrorist activity."
"We're concerned that the proposed law could open the door to police abuse," said Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "One can understand renewed concern with terrorism in light of recent events, but the new provisions are a throwback to earlier laws that caused nothing but trouble. In its haste to act, India should not repeat past mistakes."
If enacted, the ordinance would reinstate a modified version of the notorious Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), repealed in 1995 after widespread public protest. TADA facilitated tens of thousands of arrests, detentions, and acts of torture in violation of international law, and was used to crack down on political opponents, social activists, and human rights defenders.
The newly proposed law contains certain safeguards not included in TADA, including immediate notification of family members following arrest and restrictions on the use of confessions extracted by torture, but it is more stringent than a criminal law bill that had been in the works to replace TADA. In putting forward the new proposal, the Indian cabinet rejected the pending criminal law bill, deeming it "too weak to provide a legal framework for combating terrorism."
Human Rights Watch has also criticized proposed changes to U.S. law and policy since September 11 that would unduly increase police powers and restrict the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers, and other foreigners.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft dated September 28, Human Rights Watch cautioned that the "danger to the United States posed by terrorist activities should not be used as a justification to expand [police] powers in ways that undermine the rights to liberty and due process of law possessed by citizen and non-citizen alike." The organization is also closely following developments in the UK, where amendments to existing anti-terrorism legislation are likely to be announced shortly.
Human Rights Watch has also criticized opportunistic changes to legislation in several other countries.