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(New York) - The Indian government’s decision to repeal the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) is a major step forward for civil liberties in India, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch said POTA’s repeal would be an example for the rest of the world that counter-terrorism efforts need not undermine fundamental rights and urged the government to immediately release all individuals held without charge under POTA, drop all cases filed under POTA, and promptly determine whether to refile such cases under the criminal code.

POTA was enacted soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the adoption of a United Nations Security Council resolution against terrorism. The legislation allowed security agencies to hold suspects for up to 180 days without filing charges. In practice, the law was often used against marginalized communities such as Dalits (so-called “untouchables”), indigenous groups, Muslims, and the political opposition.

“India’s move to repeal POTA is an important signal to other countries that counter-terror efforts can be pursued while respecting basic rights,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.

On September 17, the new Indian government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that it would keep its election pledge to repeal POTA and amend existing laws to target terrorist activity. The new government has recognized that many provisions of POTA have allowed for widespread abuse, such as dispensing with the presumption of innocence by placing the burden of proof on suspects, the compulsory denial of bail, and the admissibility of confessions despite the frequent use of torture and coercion by Indian police and security forces.

“Prime Minister Singh’s government made a brave and principled decision to repeal POTA,” said Adams. “As in other countries that have adopted hastily drafted anti-terror legislation after September 11, this law was abused and actually weakened India’s democracy.”

The government has appointed a central review committee to review all cases brought under POTA. This review committee was established in December 2003 in response to widespread criticism of egregious abuses under POTA, but it has not processed many cases. It has been given one year to review all cases.

Human Rights Watch also called on the government to address the cases of dozens of individuals arrested under the earlier Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) who are still being held in custody. TADA was widely criticized for its overbroad scope and the abuses it allowed and was allowed to lapse in 1995. Yet unfair trials continue in several cases and many remain in jail.

“Every country has the responsibility of protecting its citizens, but in India, anti-terrorism laws have become a tool for attacking the government’s critics,” Adams said. “The government should end all prosecutions under TADA and make quick decisions about whether to proceed with cases under the criminal law.”

Human Rights Watch called for a comprehensive review of legislation that allows overbroad authority for law enforcement to infringe on civil liberties. Laws such as the National Security Act, the Disturbed Areas Act, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act have spawned abuses in various parts of the country, including many deaths in custody and widespread allegations of torture. Most recently, the northeastern state of Manipur, the scene of a longstanding secessionist insurgency, has witnessed unprecedented demonstrations against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act by civilians alleging rape and custodial killings by troops belonging to the Assam Rifles army unit.

Human Rights Watch also called for immediate judicial reform to end the culture of “encounter killings,” extrajudicial executions of suspected criminals, and strongly urged immediate implementation of recommendations by the National Police Commission, specifically those that call for mandatory judicial inquiries in cases of alleged rape, death, or grievous injury of people in police custody.

“In addition to addressing the law, now is a good time to address the culture of impunity enjoyed by some of the country’s security forces,” Adams said.

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