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Global: 140 Countries Pass Counterterror Laws since 9/11

Dangerous Expansion of State Powers to Investigate, Detain, and Prosecute

(New York) – More than 140 countries have passed counterterrorism laws since the attacks of September 11, 2001, often with little regard for due process and other basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 112-page report, “In the Name of Security: Counterterrorism Laws Worldwide since September 11,” says that while terrorist attacks have caused thousands of deaths and injuries, that is no justification for counterterrorism laws that violate the basic rights of suspects and that are also used for politically motivated purposes.

“Terrorist acts are a repudiation of human rights, but overbroad laws that ignore basic rights only compound the harm,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Together, the counterterror laws enacted around the globe represent a dangerous expansion of powers to detain and prosecute people, including peaceful political opponents.”

While every government has a responsibility to protect its population from attack, many have used the new measures to prosecute journalists, protesters, opposition politicians, and religious or ethnic groups under the guise of counterterrorism, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found that 144 countries enacted or revised one or more counterterrorism laws since September 11, 2001. Human Rights Watch reviewed 130 of those laws and found that all contained one or more provisions that opened the door to abuse.

The elements that raise grave human rights concerns include overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism—such as “disrupting the public order”—as well as sweeping powers for warrantless search and arrest, the use of secret evidence, and immunity for police who abuse the laws, Human Rights Watch said.

For example:

  • In Turkey, two students were convicted of membership in an armed group and sentenced in 2012 to eight years and five months in prison for acts that included unfurling a banner that read, “We want free education, we will get it.” Turkish courts have convicted hundreds of non-violent protesters under the country’s broad counterterrorism laws.
  • A court in Bahrain in 2011 convicted 21 opposition leaders—seven in absentia—for crimes including “terrorism” for activities such as criticizing the monarchy’s human rights record and participating in pro-democracy protests.  The court sentenced eight defendants to life in prison and the rest to terms of up to 15 years.
  • Eleven journalists in Ethiopia were convicted on charges such as providing “moral support” for terrorism in late 2011 and 2012, based on evidence such as writing articles criticizing the government. Two Swedish journalists received 11-year sentences for “rendering support to terrorism” because they illegally entered Ethiopia to report on abuses in the embattled Ogaden region.

Many new counterterrorism laws authorize prolonged detention without charge, Human Rights Watch said. In the United States, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 codifies indefinite detention without charge of the 169 detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay as well as of future terrorism suspects. Such detention has not been part of the US legal code since the McCarthy era anti-communist sweeps in the 1950s.

Many of the measures were passed as a result of United Nations Security Council resolutions that ordered states to pass counterterrorism laws after September 11, with little regard to rights protection.

Some countries, such as Norway, have resisted efforts to enact counterterrorism laws that would violate basic rights. Others, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have amended recent counterterrorism laws to mitigate – if not eliminate – the most problematic provisions.

Human Rights Watch called on governments to revise abusive laws, re-try or release people arbitrarily detained or convicted of terrorism offenses in unfair trials, and provide redress to those whose rights they have violated. The United Nations should help lead the way in reversing abusive laws and practices, Human Rights Watch said.

“The UN has increasingly recognized that counterterrorism laws that trample free speech and peaceful protest are counter-productive,” Tayler said. “Human rights violations don’t uproot terrorism—they help it grow.”

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