Recently the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, announced the setting up of a review committee to look into the misuse of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Ironically, Advani had seen no flaw in the law last year when it was urgently ushered in via a rare joint Parliament sitting. With in-built safeguards, the POTA was deemed a kinder, gentler version of the dreaded Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, withdrawn in 1995. The POTA and the battle against terrorism became an important electoral issue, with the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders associating opposition to the POTA with anti-nationalism.
But having only completed a year of existence, the POTA has already built up as dreaded a reputation as its predecessor. Both these anti-terror legislations violate two cardinal principles of criminal law, that of certainty and of presumption of innocence unless proved guilty. State governments, even opposition-ruled ones, are using the POTA freely to fix political opponents, openly target communities and detain minors.
India is not the only country that has pushed through such a draconian legislation to fight terrorism. The aftermath of September 11 saw most governments, including liberal democracies of the West, push through legislation that would give government agencies greater teeth to curb terrorism; the flip side of this was the rising clampdown on civil liberties.
In Britain, when the Labour government came to power, it promised to repeal Britain’s Prevention of Terrorism act, introduced following the 1974 Irish Republican Army attack. It was declared at the time to be a “strictly temporary measure”. It gave the police extensive discretion to spy on, intern and deport citizens without trial. But it was found too useful to ever be repealed. The present Labour government repealed the act, but its home secretary, David Blunkett introduced one ten times as long and far more draconian, under cover of 9/11. This Anti-Terrorism act is the most extensive restriction of civil liberties in Britain in peacetime — providing the power to imprison suspects without trial. Blunkett is already seeking powers to tap mobile phones and email messages and pass on such information to state agencies.
Following 9/11, anti-terror laws have also appeared in the United States of America. It began with an anti-terror scheme that invited those who had no permanent residency status in the US to register themselves with civil authorities by December 16, 2001. But civil liberties groups claimed that this led to the detention of hundreds of Muslims.
The American justice department is now planning a domestic security enhancement act of 2003, which would revoke a citizen’s right to obtain information about a friend or family member detained by the government in connection with any activity deemed “terrorist”. Perhaps the most alarming proposal is that the justice department will have powers to revoke a person’s permanent resident alien status or even US citizenship for participating in, or “providing material support to...a terrorist organization.”
But while 9/11 may have been a turning point in the war against freedom, history too bears out the correlation between wars and controls imposed in the name of freedom. Income tax was invented to pay for hostilities against Napoleon. It hit a top rate of 90 per cent to pay for World War II.
There have been protests by aware citizen’s groups. Communities and colleagues have rallied around victims to raise unusual and inspiring forms of dissent. For the last two weeks, Maher Hawash, a software engineer and American citizen who was from the West Bank and grew up in Kuwait, has been held in a federal prison in the US, though he has not been charged with a crime or brought before a judge. Civil liberties groups say material witness statutes are being abused by the Bush administration to hold people like Hawash indefinitely. His colleagues at Intel have now started a legal defence fund and a website (freemikehawash.org) in an effort to secure his release.