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Rewriting the antiterror law

Saturday, July 4, 2009 Leave a Comment

Below is my 2005 op-ed on Indonesian Anti Terrorism Law in Jakarta Post.
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Rewriting the antiterror law

The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Mon, 10/24/2005 2:02 PM | Opinion

Mohamad Mova Al 'Afghani, Jakarta

Long unguarded coastlines, poverty, rampant corruption, a crippled legal system and widening social and economic gaps accompanied by mushrooming religious extremism have made Indonesia an easy target for terrorists. With a little cash and the misuse of Koranic verses, it will be easily possible to brainwash further candidates for suicide bombings.

All these factors have triggered the demand to amend the existing Antiterror Law with a new one that gives more powers to the government. A high ranking official referred to Malaysia's Internal Security Act and the U.S.' Patriot Act as benchmarks of antiterror law.

As a ""post-modern"" crime, the crime of terrorism is in many senses different from that of usual crimes. Unlike most ordinary crimes, terrorist attacks are often not accompanied by explicit demands, thereby blurring their true motivation. The terrorist organization often has networks in various countries, backed with enormous financial support and its cells successfully mingle into society, making it difficult for would-be terrorists to be singled out from innocent people. Not only that, their unpredictable, suicidal actions go against most normal people's sensibilities.

To cope with these extraordinary crimes, the world's legal systems have tried to introduce legislation that deviates from normal criminal laws. Several countries have permitted actions, including a derogation of an individual's civil rights, such as the quick detainment of suspects without judicial intervention, or arrests using intelligence information that deny the right of suspects to obtain legal counsel.

The first problem to these laws is that there is no accepted standard legal definition of the term ""terrorism"". The term is more political than legal. According to the law and common doctrines, terrorism consists of two elements, namely violence or threat of violence and the spread of fear or terror. Plainly speaking, only the psychological element -- the spread of terror -- is what distinguishes terrorism from ordinary crimes. However, using this concept, many ordinary criminal offenses could still be categorized as terrorist acts, so long as they had managed to result in public fear.

This is what makes antiterror laws in this world generally bad laws: The crime itself is ill-defined. It is very difficult to measure the parameters of ""causing the spreading of fear or terror"". This element cannot be quantified and will depend heavily on the subjective interpretation of its users. This has so far been proven by how these laws have been put into practice.

Other than an elastic and broad definition of these crimes, antiterror laws commonly permit a quick detention of suspects without trial. Fortunately, our laws still require judicial intervention before detaining a suspected terrorist. The requirement to have judicial intervention in detainment and arrest originates from the notion of the Rule of Law. This means that every non-criminal is essentially free to move from one place to another.

Another practical reason to keep the judiciary involved in determining who is a terrorist is that our antiterror law permits the apprehending of individual based on intelligence reports alone. Elucidation of the law states that intelligence information could be derived from almost any relevant state institution, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Finance. This is a very loose and elastic provision as intelligence information is not as strong as ""preliminary evidence"" used normally in detaining a suspect under criminal procedural law.

The existing law obligates the police to obtain a warrant from the chief of a district court before conducting an arrest. Prior to issuing a warrant, the judge will have to conduct an examination of the preliminary evidence or intelligence information submitted to them within three days. It is thus understandable that the National Police have complained that judicial intervention in terror-related arrests has caused bureaucratic problems and hindered their work.

However, totally eliminating the judiciary's role in the detainment process is a very bad idea. What could be reformed is the length of the detention, which could be made shorter. The warrant-making authority could also be transferred to higher branches of the judiciary in a bid to simplify the bureaucracy.

The law also permits the random detention of highly suspected terrorists for seven days. This requirement is already tough and needs not to be extended. The police could use intelligence to monitor the suspected terrorists upon their release, or request the court for an extension of the arrest if new evidence is discovered. Efforts to reform the Antiterror Law must be conducted carefully so as not to infringe the international or constitutional rights of individuals. Indonesia has ratified civil rights conventions and would therefore have the international obligation to adhere to their provisions.

Protection from arbitrary arrests and detention is provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Indonesia is a party. The Amended 1945 Constitution, Article 28D, also provides stringent protections of civil rights.

In the past, we have allowed a retroactive provision to be enforced against terrorism cases. Protection against non-retroactivity is actually something that is paramount under International Law and the Constitution. Although finally annulled by the Constitutional Court, the fact that the government and the House of Representative approved its use, is evidence that our community is becoming more permissive towards the use of excessive authority, although it has undermined the Rule of Law.

These are unpleasant signals in a society that is just beginning to succeed in building democracy. Oftentimes, the answer to social problems lies not in giving more power to the state to supervise the conduct of its citizens, or to restrict peoples' rights, but by social approaches.

These should be performed through civil education and the promotion of religious tolerance, accompanied by explicit support and real actions in combating terrorism through this nation's influential religious bodies, such as the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and other relevant institutions.

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